Rutgers Chabad celebrates 40 years as on-campus ‘oasis’
Rabbis and rebbetzins embrace role as ‘surrogate parents’ to students
When Rabbi Yosef Carlebach arrived at Rutgers University 40 years ago — charged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, with establishing a Chabad house there — he and his wife, Rivka, had been married just 10 days earlier, had no place to live, and had no idea where the center would be located.
Four decades later, Carlebach is still at the helm of Chabad House-Lubavitch on College Avenue on the university’s main New Brunswick campus. It is, he said, the largest Chabad house in the world, the largest Jewish institution on any campus, and the hub of 10 affiliated Chabad houses in central Jersey.
(They are not affiliated with the several dozen other Chabad-Lubavitch centers in New Jersey, which are aligned with the Lubavitch movement’s Rabbinical College of America in Morristown.)
The building now houses both an Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogue — the only Sephardic shul on a college campus in North America — men’s and women’s dorms, and a dining hall that can accommodate 770 students. They offer a host of study, social, and cultural activities, including a kosher meal plan, for the 7,200 Jewish students on campus,
the largest Jewish student body of any institution of higher education in America.
Chabad began its tenure at Rutgers by holding a Shabbat minyan in a fourth-floor rented room in the College Avenue Student Center. During those first years, bi-weekly Torah classes were held at the former Central New Jersey Home for the Aged in Somerset — now the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living — and at the now-defunct YM-YWHA of Raritan Valley in Highland Park.
In 1981 Rutgers Chabad purchased its first building, a 22,000-square-foot converted firehouse on Sicard Street in New Brunswick. Their current home, the Les Turchin Chabad House, opened in 1996, but, according to Carlebach, “on the day it opened we realized it was too small.” The
35,000-square-foot expansion that was immediately undertaken featured
a 28-room women’s dorm.
In 2005, three additional properties were purchased from the university to build a men’s dormitory, and in 2012 Chabad unveiled its $20 million expansion, which brought the center to 90,000 square feet. Carlebach said he was proud that Chabad, having raised about $500,000 at its annual dinner on March 18 and $1.2 million overall since the last dinner, has been able to cut the $3 million outstanding mortgage debt in half.
The building now gets so much use, he said, that its front doors have to be replaced every two years.
The chief attraction “is that there is a tremendous linkage between students and the staff rabbis and rebbetzins,” Carlebach told NJJN in a phone interview. Those staff members “do not consider this a job. The kids feel the relationship, and that relationship continues over many years after graduation.” The Chabad rabbis and their wives “have been invited to students’ weddings, their kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs, and even their kids’ weddings.… I know people who were kids on campus who are now grandparents.”
He pointed out that Rabbi Baruch and Sarah Goodman, campus activities directors at Chabad since 1987, spend Shabbat with students at the Chabad house. Goodman is one of seven rabbis on staff; staff members also include some of the rebbetzins.
“Students make the most major decisions of their lives during these years,” said Carlebach. “The people who should be advising them are their parents, but they’re not here. We become their surrogate parents. They are legally adults and we are not their guardians, but we are there to advise them.”
One of those former students is Lawrence Margolin of Edison, a co-owner of Giddy’s, a kosher pizzeria and catering establishment in East Brunswick, who was at Rutgers in the late ’80s. He recalled going to the Sicard Street building for “Shabbos, davening, meals, and good times with friends.”
“It was a nice place to get away from everything,” said Margolin, who was raised in a less observant home in Colonia but is now Orthodox. Although he started to become more religious during his senior year of high school, it was at Chabad that Margolin gained the knowledge to transition to a more observant life. Margolin continues to attend Chabad functions to support the organization, and Chabad students and staff are regulars at his restaurant.
Dr. Ari Green of Ocean Township is an orthopedic surgeon and Rutgers graduate who received the Rutgers Chabad Alumnus Award at this year’s annual dinner. Like Margolin, he started out going to Chabad at the Sicard Street building, in 1993. He said he was impressed with the dedication of the rabbis who make themselves available to students at all hours, particularly Carlebach.
“You could call him at two o’clock in the morning, and he calls you right back,” said Green.
For current students, like Chana Rodriguez, a freshman from Coconut Creek, Fla., Chabad provides Jewish learning, enjoyable social activities, and a chance to interact with others from all over. Nightly events range from Sephardic shiurim (classes) to Sushi and Soul — where students make the traditional Japanese food while learning Torah — to Thursday night’s all-women challah baking.
“It’s such a wonderful experience to think you are making challah and that all students will be enjoying your challah on Shabbat,” said Rodriguez. “Shabbat is a really great experience here, with lots of socialization. The rabbis here are so great. They are always there if you want to learn.”
Honorary Rutgers Chabad president Donald Hecht of Manhattan said he became involved with Chabad 15 years ago when, during a bout with colon cancer, he became close to Carlebach. Because of a tight connection to the Sephardic community around Deal and Long Branch, Hecht worked closely with Carlebach on Chabad’s Sephardic shul.
“There are many religious students who would not otherwise be able to go to Rutgers, because they cannot live in a mixed-[gender] dormitory,” said Hecht. “The accommodations are sensational….” When students leave traditionally observant homes and religious families and “go out into the secular world,” at Rutgers, “they have a place to come to on campus; they can be back in their culture. The community sees it as an oasis.”
Jeffries Shein of Long Branch, president of the Woodbridge-based Marion & Norman Tanzman Charitable Foundation, which in 2016 made a $500,000 matching grant (which was met), said he recognizes the important role Chabad plays at Rutgers.
“I realized the Jewish population at Rutgers would be increasing,” said Shein. “Chabad House is a place that brings students together to meet and mingle and get to know one another. Under the dynamic leadership of Rabbi Carlebach, it grew from a little nothing, and the Tanzman Foundation is delighted with the results and will continue to support Chabad in the future.”
Carlebach said he believes with the presence on campus of Chabad, Rutgers Hillel, and MEOR/Rutgers Jewish Xperience — an outreach organization offering educational and experiential connections to Judaism and Israel — the university has come to realize the value of Jewish life on campus. Rutgers has become a destination school for Jewish students, he said, adding, “The university uses our brochures in recruiting and helping to get the word out throughout the entire country. It’s a win-win situation.”
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