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Study: Chabad rabbis are counselors of first resort on college campuses

Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

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Eitan Arom
Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

Among their normal responsibilities on college campuses across America, Chabad emissaries organize events, teach Torah and engage students one-on-one in learning sessions. But whether by design or happenstance, these emissaries often are the first line of defense when students face personal crises as well, according to a recent study.

“A life crisis can deepen a relationship when a distraught student turns to their campus rabbi or rebbetzin for help. … We heard stories of emissaries bailing students out of jail for drunk driving, consoling them when a close friend has an illness, or spending time with them when a loved one dies,” noted the authors of “Chabad on Campus,” a study funded by the Hertog Foundation, which offers educational programs for people seeking to influence intellectual, civic and political life.

Chabad houses cater to students on more than 500 campuses via 264 college centers worldwide, up from 35 centers in 2000. In the study, published in September, four Jewish studies researchers spent the better part of 134 pages trying to quantify the impact these houses have on the college students who frequent them. Buried about halfway through it was this curious fact that defies metrics. But it wasn’t news to many Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins reading the document.

“It’s not like I found anything they don’t know,” said Mark I. Rosen, a Brandeis University professor who researches Jewish life and one of the study authors, who presented the results to a group of Jewish professionals at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in December.

Rosen said he wasn’t surprised by the result, either.

“Kids who are away from home, they don’t always want to tell their parents what’s going on,” he said.

Unlike Hillel houses, Chabads are built around the family of the campus emissary, with home cooking and toddlers often scurrying underfoot. The study authors didn’t formally address Hillel, but suggested that the family-like atmosphere of Chabad houses played a part in its attraction for students, giving them a place to bring their personal struggles.

“Some of the individuals we interviewed indicated that the rabbi and rebbetzin had become like family to them,” they wrote.

College campuses are “big, cold, impersonal places, basically,” said Rabbi Dov Wagner, the Chabad emissary at USC.  When you’re around to listen to people, he said, “people wanna have a conversation.”

Wagner has seen students walk into his Craftsman home near campus to seek guidance with issues ranging from eating disorders to a death in the family. When mental health care is the appropriate solution, he refers the students to professional help, but more often students show up with more mundane personal troubles.

“Sometimes it’s a breakup or not getting into a fraternity, which, I laugh and you laugh, but at the moment in a student’s life, it’s a traumatic experience,” he said.

Occasionally, students will show up whom he barely knows at all. A few years ago, a USC student died after falling off a roof during spring break in Mexico. A number of students showed up looking for someone to talk to.

“I barely knew them before,” Wagner said. “They just wanted to come over and talk.”

Sometimes, students will share information with Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins that they’re not comfortable speaking about with anyone else.

“Just this week, I had a meeting with someone who felt comfortable enough to share something with me that he did not share with his therapist of many years,” Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad at UCLA said. “It’s anecdotal, but it happens relatively often.”

In those cases, he said, it’s important to “know our limitations,” he said.

“We’re not mental health professionals, but at the same time, we’re there to help and to be there for those needs,” Gurevich said.

It’s not only rabbis but also their wives who are called on to provide emotional and spiritual support. In cases of sexual assault, for instance, female students sometimes seek out the rebbetzin for support.

Elisa Gurevich, Dovid’s wife, said students sometimes use their home as a safe space after being attacked. Once, she accompanied an undergraduate to file a police report after a rape. And she’s visited students at the psych ward at UCLA more times than she can count, on occasion bringing along one of her older children.

Chabad is sometimes the first point of contact for students experiencing a traumatic event. In an interview, Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum of the Rohr Chabad of UC Irvine said a female student recently came to his house after an alleged rape.

“We were the first place she came to,” he said. “She didn’t go back to her dorm room.”

According to the study, informal counseling by Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins plays a part in Chabad’s mission on campus — namely, bringing students closer to their Jewish identities. 

Personal relationships with emissaries are among the most crucial engagement tools Chabad has. So by spending time with students in crisis and strengthening their relationships, emissaries advance the organization’s religious mission.

“One rabbi explained that post-crisis, when students may struggle for understanding, some made ‘amazing spiritual advances,’ ” the study authors wrote. “The relationships that developed played a key role.”

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