Rabbi and wife team up to offer vibrant Jewish life on campuses

By Kate Gaertner, Jewish Light Staff

Hershey Novack didn’t always know that he wanted to become a rabbi. 

“If you had asked me at my bar mitzvah if I was going to become a rabbi, I would have laughed at you-very hard,” says Novack.

For the bearded, energetic Novack, 32, who is now the rabbi at the Rohr Center for Jewish Life, a branch of Chabad on Campus that serves Washington University and surrounding communities throughout the region, spiritual leadership was a calling that came over time. Novack says that the idea grew on him as he grew older, and as he came to see the impact that becoming a rabbi would allow him to make.

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As part of his rabbinic training, the Chicago-born, Los Angeles-raised Novack studied in a number of yeshivahs, including institutions in Australia and in England, and visited 18 countries before age 22.

After completing his training, Novack and his wife, Chana R. Novack, 29, were recruited by the national Chabad headquarters to serve college students in St. Louis with a new, permanent Chabad presence-the first of its kind in the area.

As a campus-focused rabbi, Novack’s duties differ significantly than those of a community rabbi. Novack performs very few funerals and no bar or bat mitzvahs.

He considers himself a teacher as well as a religious leader, and part of his purpose is to help college students adjust to the new community around them.

“For many young people, college is the first extended period of time that they’ve been away from home. It may be a catalyst for immense personal growth, and as relationships with their parents change, it provides an opportunity for a campus rabbi to bring people together,” Novack says.

Novack faces his fair share of challenges-studies show that college is often the least religious time in a person’s life, and getting students to continue to be interested in their heritage without the protective umbrella of their families is difficult. Novack tries to sway these students’ natural intellectual curiosities toward Chabad and Jewish teachings.

“Oftentimes I find that college students’ thirst for knowledge fits neatly into their academic ambitions,” Novack says. “Part of my job is to articulate how ancient Jewish ideas are relevant to college students, both while they’re in college and for the rest of their lives.”

Through Chabad, Novack seeks to provide students with religious experiences that are both meaningful and accessible-a heady task, he admits.

“It’s a tough nut to crack, but the ethos that pervades our programming [at Chabad] is broad but also deep. We have to engage students without being shallow or superficial,” says Novack.

Since coming to the Rohr Center, Novack has hosted weekly family-style Chabad dinners, has taken over 500 young people to Israel through Birthright, and has started a graduate fellowship program for Jewish students from the ground up.

But Novack maintains that the most meaningful part of his career thus far has been the difference he has made through teaching the lessons of the Chabad to young people of all backgrounds.

“I have been given an incredible opportunity to make a difference, both in the Jewish world and in the broader world,” Novack says.

 

Chabad on Campus – Rohr Center for Jewish Life

Where: 7018 Forsyth Boulevard,

University City

More info: 314-721-2884 or

www.chabadoncampus.org

UPCOMING EVENTS:

• Friday, Aug. 27, Community-Wide Kiddush and Shabbat Lunch, 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, Rohr Center;

• Community-Wide Kiddush and Shabbat Lunch, 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, Rohr Center;

• Welcome-Back BBQ for grad students, 4-6 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 1, between Anheuser-Busch and Seigle halls, near the University City/ Big Bend Metrolink station. Later that evening, the Jewish Cooking Club will meet in dormitory kitchen in the freshman and sophomore living area at the South 40. The group will create Rosh Hashanah baked treats.

• Welcome-Back BBQ for upperclassmen, 4-6 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 5, Rohr Center