Chabad program targets Jewish students beyond Wash U

Dodi Smason

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Growing up the daughter of a modern Orthodox rabbi and attending Block Yeshiva High School, Dodi Smason felt “a strong Jewish identity,” she said.

So after graduating high school in 2009 and starting at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Smason sometimes felt lonely on campus because there was little-to-no organized Jewish student life. 

“With my Jewish identity being one of the biggest parts of my life, it was just difficult to not feel like I could really engage with that on campus,” said Smason, who helped start the school’s Jewish Student Association her senior year. 

Smason, whose father is Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion in Olivette, now aims to make sure that current Jewish undergrads in St. Louis have a better experience. 

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She is directing a new program, The Network, an initiative of the Orthodox organization Chabad, to build Jewish life on local campuses with fewer Jewish students than, say, Washington University. 

The program aims to reach any Jewish student — from Orthodox to unaffiliated — at UMSL, St. Louis University, Webster University and St. Louis Community Colleges’ Forest Park and Meramec branches. Some of the schools already have active Jewish Student Association chapters. Maryville University has its own robust Hillel.

The initiative has received $24,000 from Jewish Federation of St. Louis and $4,000 from the Kranzberg Family Foundation. The organization estimates that there are more than 200 students participating in Jewish life at the various campuses. Smason will help individual Jewish student groups at the schools organize separate events and hold larger functions, such as a monthly Shabbaton, with students from all the schools. She aims to hold three events each month. 

“What The Network hopes to accomplish is connecting all the campuses together, so it makes us one big family, while still allowing (individual chapters) to maintain their own identities,” said Smason, who is now studying for a master’s degree in nutrition and human performance. 

The Network will hold its first event, a barbeque, on Sunday, Sept. 2 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Chabad on Campus – Rohr Center for Jewish Life at Washington University. 

Otherwise, most of the events will take place at the individual campuses. Rabbi Hershey Novack, a director of the Wash U Chabad center, had previously tried to just bring students from other campuses to Wash U for events but found that it didn’t work well, he said.

“It’s important for students who study in St. Louis but not at Washington University to know that they matter,” said Novack. “And they deserve focused energy, support and resources.”

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