Vibrant Jewish campus life benefits the entire community

Rabbi Hershey Novack

By Rabbi Hershey Novack

In 2008, Jewish Living magazine identified the Washington University campus area as the epicenter of one of the Top 10 Jewish communities in America, describing the school as “popular with Jews from around the country, known for its kosher kitchen and strong Hillel and Chabad programs with plenty of activities.” Indeed, St. Louis is a great city for Jewish college students.

Some believe that college students are the only ones who benefit from a high caliber of Jewish campus life. As I see it, the entire St. Louis community benefits.

In its broadest sense, college education is an investment in one’s future. And Jewish campus life is an investment in the Jewish future. College is often a place where adulthood emerges, and may be one of the last opportunities a young person has to develop an appreciation for Jewish living and values before setting out into the world.

I think about this each day, and this ideal drives our efforts at Chabad on Campus.

Our programs aim to serve young people from the entire community, at Washington U. and at other colleges in the region. Our student groups offer exciting programs and leadership opportunities, and we have facilitated Israel trips for over 500 students through Mayanot’s Birthright Israel program. We host family-style Shabbat dinners each week, and focus on Jewish learning. Students recognize us as advocates for Israel on those occasions when Israel’s detractors rear their heads.

All of these experiences provide opportunities for students to connect with a sense of Jewish community, one that is both of the students and for them. A community that is meaningful, accessible and inclusive of students of all backgrounds and levels of religious observance. A community of purpose that inspires its members to give to others.

Recently, a newly-graduated student wrote to me: “I’ve just been busy trying to get my life together for next year. Turns out, I finally got it together and I owe you a big thank you for it. I was accepted to the [Jewish service program] and I have accepted. I will be spending next year [serving the Jewish community] and I couldn’t have done so without your recommendation. On top of that, your support all through college has really given me a place where I always feel welcome and has really made the experience complete for me, especially with respect to my Jewish identity.”

Messages such as this reflect a simple and powerful idea: Involvement during college can lead to a life of meaningful community participation. For many, that journey begins in St. Louis, and, with a rebounding local job market, St. Louis may indeed – and often does – become their home.

To be sure, Chabad is not the only facilitator for Jewish campus life, nor do we seek to be. We are all the richer for the plentiful opportunities available for students to connect in our community. St. Louis Hillel offers a plethora of resources for college students, the historically Jewish fraternities and sororities foster a sense of belonging, a range of community service groups provide opportunities for community service, and a number of Israel interest groups seek to educate and advocate for Israel.

Indeed, one need look no further than innovative local organizations such as Moishe House and Next Dor, both recently started by alumni of local colleges. Numerous other local organizations also draw both professional and lay leaders from the diverse body of those who studied in St. Louis.

Many young people discover that becoming more engaged with their faith and people during their college years is an enriching experience that provides an essential sense of sacred community. This involvement during the college years can set the stage for a lifetime of meaningful engagement with the richness of our Jewish tradition.

St. Louis draws a significant number of talented young Jews to its universities. Together, we can work to retain them in our community, fostering a culture of energetic and knowledgeable leadership far into the 21st century.

Rabbi Hershey Novack is campus rabbi and director of Chabad on Campus in the St. Louis area. He has been serving St. Louis area colleges since 2002.