Given the impenetrable penumbra of mystery surrounding the secret letter from the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) to President Shirley Tilghman about the Chabad Affair, one may question the current adequacy of the support for Jewish life at Princeton. Though Princeton may overtly seem a welcoming environment for Jews, recent events suggest otherwise: Lisa Glukhovsky ’08, on March 31 of this year, discovered a swastika on a Bloomberg Hall black board and a drawing of bombs pointed at a so-labeled “Jewish library” and “little Jews.” Chabad on Campus took an active approach to transcend this anti-Semitism by holding a Jewish dinner a week later in the Bloomberg common room in active triumph over the prejudice. But Webb, always at the heart of helping Jews on campus, still lacks official status as a rabbi at Princeton. In denying Webb official chaplaincy on campus, the Administration points the missile once again at campus Jewish life, struggling to find a foothold for a variety of worship.
At this juncture, one might be best served by delving into what Rabbi Eitan Webb and Chabad on Campus stand for at Princeton.
By way of brief explanation, Chabad-Lubavitch is a branch of Hassidism, a sect of Judaism that arose in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe to promote spirituality or joy in Judaism. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadiin in the late eighteenth century started the Chabad movement, which emphasized a more scholarly and intellectual approach to this emotionality of Hassidism. Lubavitch, which comes from the Russian “Lyubavichi” with the root word “love,” is the name of the town that served as the movement’s headquarters for over a century. There are currently over 200,000 adherents to the movement and 1,350 Chabad houses worldwide. During my interview with Webb at Princeton’s Chabad house, he spoke excitedly about the fact that Chabad—which is Hebrew acronym for “Chochmah, Binah, Da’at” (“Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge”)—is committed to a scholarly excavation of Judaism.
“Of course, we believe that there’s a God….but we don’t limit it to that,” Webb said. “We extend outward to study, and to analyze, and to investigate and to, as one of the great Rabbis said, to turn my father’s God into my God. We want it to be something that should be personal, that we each should understand—a sect that is unique.” Webb explained that he never wants Judaism to be a burden, but rather something that is enjoyable for its followers. “To turn Judaism into something that is happy, joyous, exciting, that is something unique to the Hassidic movement,” he said. As part of this intellectual enjoyment in Chabad, Webb initiated last year Princeton’s own version of Sinai Scholars, a national course of study that seeks to discover the modern day significance of the Jewish experience through an integration of Torah study, social activities, and national networking opportunities.
But all of this seems to matter not in terms of Webb’s pitch for official chaplaincy. When I met with Tilghman for our interview, she was just arranging to send a cell phone back to someone who had left it at her house. “We’re a full service organization—Princeton University,” she quipped with a grand smile.
Her male secretary, a chic John S. Weeren (trimmed beard, three-piece suit), took care of the matter as she began the interview to help me understand better the philosophy behind her decision.
Tilghman explained that though there is no legal agreement that would give CJL Rabbi Julie Roth a monopoly over campus Jewish life, the decision to deny Webb chaplaincy did come as an unofficial “commitment” to the CJL. “I think the University made a commitment, many years ago now, to the creation of the Center for Jewish life as the sort of gathering point, an umbrella organization for all Jewish students on campus,” Tilghman said. “And I think… the CJL is very unusual on university campuses in the degree to which the University itself has made an investment as opposed to the National Hillel Organization making an investment.” Tilghman is proud that the University has had such a financial attachment to the CJL and convinced that the CJL can accommodate the needs of all Jewish students at Princeton. “And I think at the heart of the decision to retain a single Jewish chaplaincy at Princeton,” she says, “is our belief that at the end of the day, the Center for Jewish Life was created, and we believe it has the capacity, to serve all Jewish students at Princeton.” But what if, as the case seems to be, the CJL cannot serve the needs of all Jewish students? “They are a full service organization, coming back to ‘full service organizations,’” she said, alluding to the cellular telephone in a jocular manner that seems out of place in the serious context of this conversation. One must distinguish between the Jew and le jeu and get serious about the fact that the CJL has not met the needs of many students. Howard Nuer ’07, a Hassidic Jew, has been unsatisfied with the CJL’s accommodation of his kosher needs. Nuer, for example, cannot eat at the CJL on any day dairy is served, because it does not keep in accordance with Cholov Yisroel products. Nuer admits that he keeps to a level of stringency beyond that of most Jews, but he can be accommodated only at Chabad and not at the CJL. “There are all of these claims about how Eitan [Webb] is not pluralistic and how he doesn’t represent the full gamut of Jewish life on campus, but neither does the CJL,” Nuer said. Avi Flamholz ’07, who has informally participated in the CJL and to a lesser extent Chabad, feels that non-orthodox Jews may sometimes feel excluded at the CJL. “I think there is a perception that the CJL is ‘only for orthos,’” he said. “That is, because many of the Orthodox students basically live their lives in the CJL (being there for kosher food and prayer, you might as well be there the whole day) some people feel uncomfortable stepping in. Moreover, the CJL is a big umbrella organization and Chabad is just one group that is run out of a house. In contrast to Chabad, the CJL seems very austere to some.” Adam Rosner ’07 felt this austerity when he tried to become active in the CJL. He said that though he was once a participant in the CJL’s Orthodox sub-organization, Yavneh, he ultimately felt exclusion. “Yavneh remains closed, hardly accepts outsiders—even those like me who attended Orthodox day schools—people who are socially religious but practically not,” he said. If the CJL cannot be a home for the most religious such as Nuer and if it excludes the less observant of Jews, it would only seem logical to formally recognize the Chabad branch of Judaism on campus that fills in the necessary gaps for the inadequate CJL.
Let’s take it by the numbers: if there are thirteen different Christian chaplains at Princeton, why can’t there be more than one Jewish chaplain? Princeton with its 4,700 undergraduates has the second smallest (to Dartmouth) Jewish population in the Ivy League with 600 Jewish undergraduates; that would mean that even if we were to overestimate and assume that all of the 4,100 remaining students were Christian, there would be one Christian chaplain for approximately every 300 Christian students. Because there are fewer than 4,100 Christians on campus, the official Christian student to Christian chaplain ratio is less than 300 to 1, whereas the Jewish Student to official Jewish chaplain ratio is currently unfairly at 600 to 1. At the very least, the University should, by the numbers, have two recognized Jewish chaplains. So why not?
Will Scharf ’08, former Chabad Student Board President, has an answer.
“[Webb] meets every official requirement for chaplaincy put forward by the university,” he said. “The only thing preventing him from being a chaplain at the moment is the fact that he’s Jewish.” Whether intended or not, the denial of Webb’s chaplaincy has led some to peg the decision as prejudiced.
Nuer feels find this decision to deny another Jewish chaplain reminiscent of Princeton’s less accepting past.
“I really think it is unfair that there are thirteen Christian chaplains and only one Jewish chaplain,” he said. “The argument, if you read the letter that President Tilghman sent Eitan in denying him chaplaincy said we are basically committed to keeping one Jewish chaplain, and that is the final word. They say, ‘And we don’t care about the reasons or whatever, we just want one.’ And that seems to be harkening back to Princeton’s days of lesser tolerance. And we would hope Princeton would want to get away from that.” Rosner cannot comprehend why the University has chosen to accept some more radical religious groups on campus while shunning Chabad, a reasonable alternative to the CJL.
“There are no detriments to Chabad’s presence on campus,” he said. “I don’t see how the University can advocate for Jewish vitality on campus when it permits Evangelical missionaries to thrive on campus, and they likely, whether they will admit it are not, believe that Jews are God’s people but are going to hell unless they accept Jesus into their lives. I suppose I’m going to hell.”
For the variety of choices in Princeton’s Jewish life, many support Webb’s quest for chaplaincy. “In the abstract I’m not opposed to Rabbi Webb being a recognized chaplain,” Flamholz said. “He’s a nice guy and he works hard to build a particular kind of Jewish community at Princeton. Some students really like the religious and social options he offers.”
Webb creates an atmosphere with his family—children crawling around the tables and reciting Jewish prayers—that cannot be mirrored by the CJL. But receiving chaplaincy does not merely come from being a nice guy and indefatigable spiritual leader. Many of the stereotypes, though, about Webb’s not being pluralistic seem to arise from stereotypes about his specific breed of Judaism. Some, for example, are concerned with Chabad’s conception of the Rebbe, a Jewish scholar who in addition to being a guru head rabbi for the movement is thought by many Chabadniks to be the Messiah. Webb, though, explains Rebbe more as a spiritual leader than anything else. “This is a person we’re going to want to follow. This is a person we’re going to grow spiritually with,” Webb said.
“The Rebbe was by all accounts a preeminent Jewish scholar, and so the Rabbi will often tell stories about the Rebbe, or interpretations by the Rebbe,” Chabad Student Board President Arthur Ewenczyk ’09 said.
But Webb never imposes upon anyone the Rebbe’s position.
”[Webb] always prefaces it as being what the Rebbe says, and it’s a perspective that you probably wouldn’t get other places, but it’s always presented as a perspective,” Ewenczyk added. “And so it’s never imposed upon you. But he has been taught in the Hassidic way, and he doesn’t hide that; he embraces that position, and students appreciate and learn from it…This is an issue about pluralism and diversity and so having someone like Rabbi Webb who went to a Hassidic school, gives us a perspective, which is different from the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox perspectives on campus about Judaism.” Flamholz elucidated specific beliefs surrounding the last Rebbe, who died in 1994.
“‘Yechi Melech HaMoshiach’” posters—posters claiming that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the fulfilment of Jewish messianic expectation—are a hallmark of Chabad’s work in Israel and some areas of New York,” he said. “I’ve heard tell that some Chabadnicks believe that every time a Jew does a Mitzvah (Jewish ritual) the coming of the Messiah (who may or may not be the Rebbe) is hastened.” The idea of the Messiah seems to be a mystical threat to those in opposition to the movement, and though Chabad’s students are allowed to accept or reject such claims as they please, Rosner feels that misunderstanding of this aspect remains a large impediment to Webb’s official chaplaincy. “The biggest speed bump for Eitan is what many consider a roadblock: the messianic nature of Chabad,” Rosner said. He is quick to indicate that like Christianity is toward Jesus and Islam is toward Mohamed, Judaism is a fundamentally messianic religion. “Jews are serious about whom they consider a messiah,” Rosner said, “and the belief that a messiah will come is a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Hasidism, as a movement, is simply more vocal.” What does Chabad offer that the CJL does not? Is Chabad the answer? Flamholz waxes eloquent about the state of American Judaism, about Jews who practice little and feel guilty about it. He sees progress available in the Chabad movement away from less observant divisions to reinvigorate Jewish people’s interest in their heritage.
“Whatever the case, there are many non-practicing Jews who would prefer to look to a Chabad Rabbi, who they perceive as representing true Jewish tradition and practice, for religious observances and guidance than to a Conservative or Reform Rabbi,” he said. “Eitan offers the comfort of authentic-seeming Judaism. A CJL lead by a Conservative rabbi does not.” The openness and freeness of Chabad seems to provide the community with a great opportunity. “Eitan demands no commitment from people,” Flamholz said. “They can show or not show, become observant or not. Perhaps his greatest strength is that he takes all Jewish comers. People who are uncomfortable with their level of religious practice probably don’t want to be confronted with questions and demands about their practice, and so they find the Chabad environment particularly welcoming.” Flamholz indicates Webb’s commitment to all Jews, but it should be noted that non-Jews and people of all races and colors frequent Webb’s table with friends for a taste of Judaism. Of the whole gamut of the CJL, from Avi to Zvi, only Zvi Smith ’09 spoke out in favor of the CJL and Rabbi Julie Roth. Despite his belief that Rabbi Webb “provides a distinct service to the Jewish student body,” Smith says, “the CJL provides an incredible range of services for the Jewish students here and is central to a thriving Jewish community at Princeton. As for Rabbi Roth, she has been nothing but nice to me
and has been supportive of every kind of innovative Jewish initiative on campus. She is willing to try new things and let students take the lead in creating their Jewish community: she seems to genuinely care about the future of Jewish life here. She’s a very good administrator and has a strong voice for the Jewish community on campus.”
In addition to his glowing approval of Roth, Smith still recognizes the need for another chaplaincy.
“Rabbi Webb should receive chaplaincy,” he said. “He provides a distinct service to the undergraduate student body that cannot be fulfilled by the CJL.” Whereas at the CJL, students must cleanly fit into Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox categories, for Chabad, a Jew, is a Jew, is a Jew.
Flamholz sees the open conflict between the CJL and Chabad as deleterious to the Princeton Jewish community as a whole. “The detriments of having Chabad on campus lie in the anxiety created in having it conflict with the CJL,” he said. “Certainly there are downsides to Chabad being on campus – it creates a tense situation where many Jewish students perceive opposing camps in Princeton’s Jewish community.” Because of the liminal state of Chabad on campus, as important yet unrecognized religious force, many are confused as to how to accept the Chabad movement. As the tension heightens and the administration refuses to recognize Webb as an outlet important to many Jewish students, the Tilghman and the rest of the administration continue to lose favor.
Though many are advocating a quick resolution to the conflict, the CJL’s decision to speak out against Webb’s chaplaincy has created a speed bump against peaceful resolution. Roth has promised to welcome Chabad as part of the CJL, but she currently discriminates against the group by hiring a staff of only Reform and Conservative Jews to make hers the dominant ideology around the CJL. It seems she wants to pour Elijah’s cup and drink it too.
N.B.: In the third leg of this triptych article series, we will explore how Webb’s intellectual and spiritual approach to Judaism has helped Jews on campus reinvigorate the links to their heritage in way the CJL could not. We will also discuss the possibility of a valid resolution to the conflict.