Can a Jewish Center Be Too Jewish?

Some Haverford students are suspicious of a campus center for Jewish life

By Molly Hawkins

Th Rohr Center for Jewish Life, located in a house just across the street from Haverford College, has had a strong relationship with the school for years. It also has a controversial reputation on campus.

The Center is also known on campus as Chabad, and affiliated with the organization Chabad, described as, “one of the world’s best-known Hasidic movements, particularly for its outreach activities,” according to Wikipedia.

Haverford’s Chabad house is run by the Rabbi, Eli Gurevitz, and his wife, Blumia. Together, they host a variety of events that support the Tri-Co’s Jewish community, including Shabbat dinners every Friday evening to welcome in the Sabbath, as well as services and gatherings during Jewish holidays.

A Hanukkah Party at Chabad House

Despite being affiliated with a national orthodox organization, The Rohr Center’s doors remain open to all regardless of religion, race, nationality, or gender. Shabbat dinners are made up of observant Jewish people, people who identify as culturally Jewish but not very observant, as well as others from different religious backgrounds who go to Chabad for reasons — such as spending time with friends and eating a delicious, home-cooked meal.

All that is needed to attend Shabbat dinner, or any other event held at the Rohr Center, is respect for Judaism and Jewish culture, and the ability to keep an open mind.

Even having both a Jewish friend and a need for something to do on a Friday night could be all it takes to get through the doorway of the Rohr Center. During Shabbat dinners, Rabbi Gurevitz always reserves a few minutes to go around the room and allow each person to give a short message.

Every week, many people express gratitude for Chabad as a comfortable Jewish space. But many express gratitude for Chabad as an inclusive, welcoming place that allows them to spend time with friends and eat good food.

Despite this praise, the general attitude towards Chabad on campus is often negative. Students who choose to attend Shabbat dinners and other events are automatically thought by some to hold Orthodox values.

They are also thought to have a Zionist or pro-Israel stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a highly controversial issue on campus. Chabad is also sometimes accused of being a homophobic organization.

It is usually students who have never been to the Rohr Center who make these kinds of claims.

It is also assumed that Chabad has a mission to discuss political issues and “convert” students to Orthodox beliefs. Many Chabad-going Haverford students say these claims are false. But, false assumptions have power, and cause students who choose to attend Chabad to feel judged and misunderstood.

“People have, to varying degrees, expressed discomfort with me going to Chabad. The most was a friend from high school who goes to Swarthmore and he basically told me that Chabad is a terrible place and I shouldn’t go and he can’t believe that I’m on the board and I’m helping them,” said Jacob Gaba, the, Chabad student board treasurer. “I was kind of taken aback by that. He’s also Jewish, and we would have Shabbat dinner together in high school. He was a very close friend who really seemed mad at me for going, and that was pretty hurtful because I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong.”

Gaba feels that the way critics of Chabad have characterized it as a political organization is unfair to what it actually tries to do: create a place for Jewish students to feel comfortable and experiment with their own personal relationship to their religion.

“What I think is very important to understand about this general issue is, number one, Chabad is not a political organization; it’s a religious organization. It’s Chabad, it’s Orthodox, but one of their missions is learning, and part of that means meeting people where they’re at,” Gaba said. “So there’s no people proselytizing. Rabbi Eli doesn’t go around telling people they need to be Jewish. I don’t think he pressures people who are Jewish into committing further into their Judaism than they’re comfortable with. I feel as though the whole point of Chabad is that it’s a really good place for Jewish students to go and figure out what it is about Judaism that they feel connected with, and then it’s up to them in the end what they do and do not practice.”

Gaba think it is wrong for people to claim that Chabad is a political organization that tries to convert people into having certain beliefs, because discussing political beliefs is irrelevant to its mission, and even works against what it is trying to achieve.

“I have never once felt judged for decisions I make regarding my Judaism. I never felt pressured to be more religious or to have certain views politically because, again, it’s not a political organization,” Gaba said. “Sure, there’s a Birthright trip, and a lot of people think that is, in and of itself, a political stance taken by the organization. I understand the politics that surround the trip, but I don’t think providing that experience for Jewish students is an inherently political thing to do. The students I know at Chabad who regularly attend have a varying array of views on Israel. But actually, in the end, I couldn’t even tell you what those views are, because we literally don’t talk about it.”

Shunning Chabad would mean losing a place where Jewish students are able to feel safe and connected to an important piece of themselves, according to some students, who see Chabad as the only truly authentic Jewish space on campus.

“Chabad is the closest thing I have to a Jewish community that resembles what I had at home. We do a lot of the same customs. We pray fairly similarly. So it reminds me of a lot of things at home, and that’s really nice,” said Yuval Luria, a Haverford sophomore and Chabad student board member. “I need that Jewish community. I feel like it would be really hard for me if I didn’t have it. Really difficult. It’s definitely the one place at school where I feel part of a community. I feel like it’s partly because I was raised in a fairly white Jewish community in America. Growing up, I was very different from most of my classmates, so I definitely just relied mostly on the Jewish community, and that’s the only community I’ve really had. I feel like, here at Haverford, there aren’t many other communities where I fit in.”

Luria thinks negative attitudes towards Chabad harms Jewish students trying to be a part of a place that is comfortable and real for them.

“Every once in a while, there are people who protest Chabad because of its connection to Birthright and things like that, and that’s annoying because there are better ways to try to fix things that you don’t believe in than getting in the way of students just trying to express their Jewish identity, come to a meal with their friends, or experience a community,” Luria said.

Like Luria, sophomore Lauren Tanel is aware of and affected by general criticism against Chabad within the Haverford community, but also feels that The Rohr Center’s affiliation with Haverford allows it to be a much more open space than other Chabad houses across the country. Tanel, who attends Chabad events, feels that students on campus understand and respect this key difference.

“I’ve heard people say bad things about it, but I feel that people at Haverford respect the fact that most people go there because it feels like a home space. I think people on campus recognize that, so they’re not going to bully you if you say that you like to go,” Tanel said. “Haverford’s Chabad is also better than a lot of other Chabad houses because it’s affiliated with a liberal arts school. I’m sure there are people at Chabad who go because they think it’s their way to talk openly about their conservative points of view. There are definitely people there who say some controversial things, but that’s not everybody. Honestly, that’s a minority, and I think that’s just because of where we are, in Haverford.”

Despite the location of the The Rohr Center, nestled snugly in the liberal suburbs of Philadelphia, its affiliation with Chabad is enough of a turn-off for certain students who might otherwise be interested in being part of a Jewish place near campus. Can the stigma surrounding Chabad ever be reduced, and if so, how?

“I know that for me, I grew up hearing that Chabad was a space for people who were much more religiously inclined than my family necessarily was, and their views about religion and what to do with it and how to spread it were very different than what I was taught being brought up in a reform community,” one Haverford student said, who wished to remain anonymous. “So, even though I’ve heard from peers that Chabad here is a very welcoming and open space, I’ve still been a little bit worried about going and actually experiencing Chabad due to the stigma that exists around it.”

Molly Hawkins covers religion at Haverford and Bryn Mawr.

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