There is something different these past few semesters about Jewish life on campus. More students are engaging in it, and students who were already engaged are becoming even more involved. Friday parties are starting after Shabbat dinner; I even heard someone say they were enjoying their meals more during Passover than the rest of the year! This new phenomenon Vassar College is experiencing is not a force majeure—it is the very well-organized and needed presence of the Chabad Jewish Community (or CJC) at Vassar.
When news of their presence first came about the arrival of the CJC, people were suspicious—myself included. Students had heard the myths about the “Chabadniks” as they were called, and some of the loudest anti-CJC cries came from none other than Jewish students on campus. I can safely and proudly say that every single one of these myths—from the legendary van used to convert students to the idea that they refuse to let women speak to the rabbi—are ludicrous.
My first encounter with CJC came when I went to the joint Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) and CJC Shabbat. Being a member of the VJU board, I went as a token of goodwill. Little did I know I would have a terrific time. The customs of the CJC, a Chasidic organization that follows the Ortohox Jewish Lubavitch faith, were new and thought-provoking for a Long Islander like myself who had spent his entire life in an almost exclusively reform or conservative setting.
Of course, and I cannot stress this aspect of CJC strongly enough, the subsequent dinner solidified that I would have to give the CJC a fair chance. Plus the dinners cooked by the CJC are consistently some of the best meals a student can get at Vassar College—and they are entirely free of charge!
Over the next few months, I became more and more engaged in the CJC by attending Passover Seders, going to weekly meetings, even joining the student-run executive board. I am pleased to say that CJC—which will become an official organization starting next semester—has not only helped my Jewish experience at Vassar College, but is also helping the experiences of many other Jewish students.
Before I get too ahead of myself, let me give the reader some baseline information about the CJC. The CJC strives to create an open space where everyone can learn about, challenge and celebrate their Jewish identity. The CJC is a student group that has an outlet for every Jewish experience, with social events like ‘make your own sushi social,’ interactive and challenging classes, one-on-one personalized study, warm Shabbat experiences and social justice with “Mitzvah Corps” all in a friendly, accepting environment. The CJC collaborates with Rabbi Daniel and Dalia Sanoff for guidance. The effects are visible: membership in CJC is quite large especially taking into account the fact it is a pre-organization. For example, more than 60 people went to the two Seder dinners during the recent Passover holiday. In addition to this, CJC’s recurring tabling—which frequently features homemade baked goods—has given students the ability to reach out and get information that they are looking for.
Students are gravitating to the environment fostered by the CJC. Maya Horowitz ’16 commented, “The CJC gives me room to explore my Judaism without pressure, gain insights and ask questions and eat good food.
Rabbi Daniel and Dalia are warm, open, humorous people, and I love being invited to talk with them on any number of Jewish issues. It is often difficult speaking about being Jewish at Vassar and the CJC offers a space for which to explore, express and enact my Judaism and Jewish heritage in both practical and esoteric ways.” CJC board member Emily Bender ’17 noted to me that, “I became involved with CJC because I think they bring a tremendous amount to the Vassar community. Through weekly Shabbat dinners, celebrations for holidays and numerous events throughout the year, they greatly help in bringing the Jewish community together on campus. Through CJC I’ve explored and connected with many new aspects of my Jewish identity.”
Rabbi Daniel may be a good resource for students to use, but he is only second best to Dalia! She is a living example of a powerful and intelligent, yet caring leader. She teaches numerous female study groups about how Judaism can add to a Vassar student’s life, and is a well-known fixture of the CJC framework. When asked about the CJC, Dalia remarked, ”Working with the Vassar Community constantly pushes me to deepen and expand my own spirituality and Jewish experience. Our Women’s study group has become my second family and my favorite part of the week,”
Rabbi Daniel, when asked about the CJC and how it serves the interests of students, said that, “CJC has been an empowering resource for students looking to engage in dialogue about Judaism’s unique approach to living. As I am regularly challenged with difficult inquires, I can reaffirm the Talmudic saying, ‘From my students I have learned the most!’ Also, I am still looking for someone who can out-ski the Rabbi.”
A tremendous part of many students’ CJC experience is coffee with Dalia or Rabbi Daniel. Students are free to have discussions with them about issues of interest to Jewish students like Kabbalistic teachings or anti-Semitism on campus. Students are gravitating to the environment fostered by the CJC.
The Chabad Jewish Community is not something to be feared. It is not stealing customers from other religious groups. It is not trying to convert you. What it is trying—and succeeding in doing—is to create an environment where Jewish students can learn, engage and embrace their heritage. Where there is love—not stigma—over being Jewish. As the acronym suggests, the CJC is truly a Jewish community, and the name could not describe the group better. It is a community of love, appreciation and respect. I advise any students thinking about Jewish life to go to one of the many CJC events or, better yet, email Dalia or the Rabbi for some coffee.
—Jason Storch ’17 is a member of the CJC and a chemistry and Russian studies double major.