Chabad opens student center at Mizzou

Chana and Rabbi Avraham Lapine have started a new Chabad student center at Mizzou. The couple is shown with their son, Mendel.

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Avraham Lapine hails from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. but the 25-year-old Lubavitcher rabbi says he has felt no culture shock since opening the new Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia two weeks ago.

“My father is from Overland Park, Kan.,” Lapine said in a recent telephone interview. “He went to K.U.”

His father’s educational allegiance to the Jayhawks may raise other issues on the Mizzou Tigers’ campus. But Lapine is determined to make the most of his new assignment where an estimated 750 Jewish students live and attend classes among 26,000 undergraduates and 6,000 graduate students at Missouri’s flagship public university.

“We are the only source of Orthodox Judaism in mid-Missouri,” he said, noting that his responsibilities include making contacts with Jews up and down the central part of the state, where their numbers are small.

The Lubavitcher movement, once led by the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, has established Chabad centers near colleges and universities around the world. The movement’s 2010 report states that 142 student centers were open at that time. A center is operating a block west of Washington University’s Danforth campus.

The Chabad Center’s website,, explains that a campus-oriented center is a “unique and critical aspect of a Chabad Jewish Student Center [with] … the leadership provided by a dynamic couple called shlichim (emissaries) who create an atmosphere where students can feel safe and seek guidance on social, education and spiritual issues.”

In 2008, terrorists attacked a hotel, a railroad station and a Jewish center in Mumbai, India, killing 163. The dead included the Chabad House’s rabbi and his wife and four guests.

But that’s the extreme, of course. Lapine expects no such threat, though like many states, Missouri is home to some extremist groups.

Rabbi Yosef Landa, regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, explained that the reason for establishing a center at the University of Missouri is primarily to be available to students who may be searching for spiritual guidance.

“The college years usually represent the first coming-of-age in students’ lives,” he said. “This is usually the first time they leave home. They take with them whatever Jewish identity they have. Suddenly they are put to a new test.”

He added that the Rohr Family Foundation, which supports Chabad Centers near campuses worldwide, wants to “be there for the students, to hold their hands, to help them maintain their Jewish identity.

“We search out programs that we can do to honor the holidays and that can be free and demonstrational,” Landa said. Showing how to make matzo for Passover is one example.

Lapine sees his mission as showing Jewish students-and members of the faculty – the various ways to practice Judaism in the Orthodox tradition. Yet he insists he has will not be in competition with the long-established campus Hillel Center on the north side of the main campus.

“We’re accepting of Jews of all backgrounds,” Lapine said. “We have our own personal preferences, but we do not force anything.”

Brian Mitchell, Hillel’s director at Mizzou, said he sees the establishment of the Chabad Center in rented two-story house at the intersection of Providence and East Brandon roads as a positive addition to Jewish life on campus.

“We don’t see it as competition at all,” Mitchell said. “Hillel is pluralist. We welcome Chabad. We offer services for the spectrum of Judaism. We have a kosher kitchen. We all want to accomplish the same goal.”

Hillel hosts from 40 to 60 Jewish men and women on Friday nights. During the High Holy Days, attendance was 100 to 200, Mitchell said.

Lapine said he and his wife, Chana, and their 9-month-old son, Mendel, live upstairs in the small house where he has established the Chabad Center. He said he made the kitchen kosher himself, and he’s put mezuzahs on the doorposts, preparing the house to begin its mission as an Orthodox place of worship and learning.

Lapine, too, expects to offer Friday night meals for students, as well as Torah classes and teaching about Jewish identity from the Orthodox point of view.

Chabad Centers are sponsored by the Rohr Family Foundation, which has helped to establish Jewish centers around the world, including in the countries of the former Soviet Union and even in Israel, according to the Chabad on Campus website.

Asked what he plans to do now to reach out to students and faculty at Mizzou, Lapine said: “We will have Hanukkah for the local community.”

And he wants to become known on campus, meeting individually with students and in groups.

“Everyone here is very warm,” Lapine said.