'Seeing us on campus lets students know they're not alone'

In Israel, US Chabad women campus emissaries commiserate over their annus horribilis

Some 150 Lubavitch emissaries flew to the Holy Land for their annual convention last week, sharing stories of bravery and pride amid a massive uptick in antisemitism at universities

Chabad on Campus shluchot visit the site of the Nova festival massacre in southern Israel on May 30, 2024, and hear testimony from survivors of the October 7 atrocities (Chabad on Campus)
Chabad on Campus shluchot visit the site of the Nova festival massacre in southern Israel on May 30, 2024, and hear testimony from survivors of the October 7 atrocities (Chabad on Campus)

For years, Baila Brackman has been a second mother to the Jewish students who walk through the door of the University of Chicago’s bustling Chabad house.

She brings chicken soup to sick students at all hours, provides a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold, and organizes the Chabad programming alongside her husband, Rabbi Yossi Brackman.

Jewish students have needed Brackman’s maternal presence more than ever since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists from the Gaza Strip invaded southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking 251 hostages.

Campus protests have spread at colleges across the United States in recent months as Israel’s efforts to dismantle Hamas in the densely populated Strip continue, with students erecting encampments from which they disrupt campus life while loudly condemning Israel. Some Jewish students say the protests made them feel unsafe, and Israel supporters say the rhetoric has at times veered into antisemitism.

“When we had encampments,” Brackman told The Times of Israel, “it got really messy… There was one day when my shirt was wet because I was comforting so many [crying] students.”

After a harrowing school year, Brackman and some 150 other Chabad shluchos, or female emissaries, traveled to Israel late last week for their annual Chabad on Campus Shluchos Convention, where much of the discourse focused on campus demonstrations.

Rebbetzin Baila Brackman of the University of Chicago (Chabad on Campus)

“It’s very disturbing,” Chabad on Campus COO Rabbi Avi Weinstein said of the protests. “But what’s more disturbing than the encampments is the fact that certain administrations are giving them credibility by negotiating with them. In some ways, that’s scarier because it [normalizes] antisemitism and attacking Jews.”

Chabad on Campus usually holds its annual convention on the East Coast, but this year the organization thought it best to make the trip to the Jewish homeland so participants could experience wartime Israel firsthand and bring those experiences back to their campuses.

On Thursday night, the emissaries regrouped in Jerusalem’s Ramada Hotel after a long day that included a tour of the memorial site for the Nova festival massacre near Kibbutz Re’im and a trip to Sderot to see the world’s only mikveh, or ritual bath, inside a bomb shelter. They settled in for a celebratory, albeit somber, gala dinner, the main topic of which was the widespread anti-Israel demonstrations on university campuses worldwide.

California State University, Northridge’s Chabad Rebbetzin Raizel Brook seen during the Chabad on Campus visit to the site of the Nova festival massacre near Kibbutz Re’im on May 30, 2024 (Chabad on Campus)

Throughout the evening, emissaries shared stories of students who felt moved to take on new Jewish practices in the face of antisemitism and others who decided to make their Jewishness more visible by wearing a Star of David necklace or a kippah.

“All of a sudden, students [were] coming out more proudly than ever,” Columbia University’s Naomi Drizin told the group. Columbia is notorious for being the first to establish an anti-Israel encampment.

Naomi Drizin of Columbia University Chabad (Chabad on Campus)

“Our Shabbat dinners exploded. We were hosting an average of 250 students every week,” she said proudly, pointing out that their New York City Chabad house can hardly accommodate so many people.

For several weeks at the beginning of the war, Naomi and her husband, Rabbi Yuda Drizin, sat at a table outside in a central location on Columbia’s campus to bolster the confidence of Jewish students who were intimidated by the volume of anti-Israel sentiment at the university.

“Seeing a proud Jewish couple on campus and seeing their fellow students putting on tefillin [phylacteries] and giving charity… gives [Jewish students] a chance to take a deep breath and say to themselves, ‘I’m not alone,'” she explained.

Drizin also highlighted the pro-Israel activism that takes place on campus, despite the school’s widely known reputation for anti-Israel advocacy. She told the crowd that an alumnus donor sponsored a fundraiser for Israel’s ambulance service, Magen David Adom, through Columbia’s Chabad, raising enough money to purchase an ambulance.

“It will be marked as the Columbia Jewish Community Ambulance,” Drizin said amid raucous applause, “showing the world that [even though] there are a lot of hateful people at Columbia, the Jewish community is really strong and proud and it supports Israel.”

Newly faithful post-October 7

Drizin took care to emphasize the students’ outpouring of Jewish pride and a newfound desire to connect with their Jewish heritage.

She said one student started keeping Shabbat and walked two hours to attend services. Another decided to move to Israel. Hundreds of students put mezuzahs on their doors.

Chabad houses at smaller schools were also highlighted at the dinner for their successes in cultivating Jewish community in a climate of antisemitism.

Emissaries Fraidy Loschak (left) and Naomi Drizin (middle) are interviewed on stage at the Chabad on Campus annual convention in Jerusalem on May 30, 2024 (Maya Zanger-Nadis/Times of Israel)

“On October 9, a student named David, who we had never met before, showed up with a pair of tefillin and said, ‘Rabbi, you’ve gotta teach me how to put these on,'” said Fraidy Loschak, a Chabad emissary at New Jersey’s Rowan University.

After several similar requests, the Loschaks started a WhatsApp group for young men who wanted to put on tefillin daily.

That group currently stands 15 strong, eight of whom received their own pairs of tefillin through Chabad funding. Additionally, the group meets once a week on Thursdays for morning prayer services, a previously unheard-of phenomenon on a campus that’s home to only a few hundred Jews, most of whom are not observant.

According to the emissaries, the uptick in visible Jewish pride mainly came from students who led completely secular lives before October 7 or whose campuses had particularly influential anti-Israel protests.

But for Chabad families like the Cheins at the Jewish-founded secular Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, the path ahead is not as simple as distributing kippot or increasing the frequency of events. Most Jewish students arrive at the Brandeis campus with a solid Jewish identity, and encounters with antisemitism and anti-Zionism are fewer and more subtle.

Chanie Chein told The Times of Israel that although Shabbat dinner attendance increased after October 7, student engagement has since returned to pre-war levels.

Chabad on Campus COO Rabbi Avi Weinstein greets participants in the organization’s annual convention held in Israel from May 30 to June 2, 2024 (Courtesy Rabbi Avi Weinstein)

The Nova massacre memorial site deeply moved Chein, and she hopes to bring some of the site’s gravity and sacredness back to Waltham to re-ignite the post-October 7 spark of Jewish pride.

“We’ve begun to wonder how [the war] is going to shift the Jewish students at Brandeis, and part of us would love to see more Jewish pride that goes beyond the immediate effects of October 7,” she said.

Although much of the evening’s discussion drew a clear distinction between Jewish students and anti-Israel protesters, participants acknowledged that the two groups can overlap.

“Even Jews [who] might be misinformed or ignorant about the issues or [who are] taking a strong stand that we disagree with — they’re still family,” Weinstein told The Times of Israel. “We’re still brothers and sisters, and we still want to have an open door to them.”

“Students need strength in [their] community,” he added. “They need not to feel alone. They need to feel protected, and they need to be protected.”

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