Chabad GW, an organization dedicated to supporting orthodox Jewish life on campus, held its inaugural event last week, drawing more than 300 students to Kogan Plaza for a celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Nationally, GW has the eighth largest percentage of Jewish students on a college campus, according to statistics gathered by Hillel. Chabad aims to reach out to these students.
“The dream is to create a home away from home that will always be available to students,” said Rabbi Yudi Steiner, who co-directs Chabad GW along with his wife Rivky. “My wife and I provide a welcoming, nonjudgmental, relaxing place for Jews to come and feel appreciated where they feel that they have a brotherhood that they can kick back with.”
Chabad, an international Jewish organization, established a chapter in D.C. 10 years ago. The group organizes holiday celebrations for Jewish students at GW, Georgetown and American, including the annual Sukkot event and the lighting of the national Hanukkah menorah.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chabad’s D.C. representative, said an increase in student interest in Chabad over the past few years spurred the need for the organization to expand, but it took two years and countless interviews for him to find the right people for the job at GW.
“Chabad has had an ongoing presence on campus for over a decade, but with the arrival of Rabbi Steiner and Rivky, things are going to go to a whole new level with more visibility, consistency and quality,” Shemtov said.
Last Friday’s event was held inside a sukkah, a traditional temporary structure that represents God’s protection of the Jewish people that has been in use since biblical times. Students shook the lulav – a bundle composed of the leaves from myrtle, willow and date palm trees – along with an etrog, the fruit from the citron tree. This tradition represents the concept of Jewish unity, Steiner said.
Holding with the theme of unity, the Jewish Students Association, the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority co-sponsored the event.
Steiner said that in order to attract Jewish students for their programming, Chabad must work with all GW Jewish organizations.
“Traditionally we work with Hillel, but really we like to work with every Jewish organization on campus because we are an umbrella organization for the entire Jewish population at GW,” said junior Josh Abrams, president of the Jewish Students Association.
Several students at the event, however, felt that there may be some unspoken tensions between Chabad and Hillel, since Hillel has an established presence on campus and Chabad is a newcomer.
“Now that Chabad is here there is a stigma that there is a conflict with Hillel,” said Alex Sasson, a junior who has attended Chabad services in the past. “Chabad doesn’t want to tramp on Hillel’s turf.”
Other students are eager for another avenue to learn about their Jewish faith.
“I’m involved in Hillel, but I’m interested in exploring all my Jewish options,” said freshman Alex Wartman.
Steiner said the difference between Chabad and Hillel is a “matter of style.”
Rob Fishman, executive director of Hillel at GW, agreed with Steiner.
“We use different methods to achieve the same goal: supporting Jewish students on campus,” Fishman said. “There is enough room on this campus for us both, but at the same time, it is sensitive.”
Chabad GW is currently located at the intersection of 22nd and N streets in the Steiners’ apartment, but there are plans to move into a much larger facility on or near campus within the next year.
Current programs are limited to dinners and study groups with about 15 students at a time. In the last several weeks, however, Steiner said at least 100 students have attended some type of Jewish program at his apartment.