2016-09-28 / Voice at the Shore

“Chabad on Campus” officially opens at Stockton University

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Rabbi Meir Rapoport (front left) hosted a barbecue for Jewish students at his home earlier this month. Rabbi Meir Rapoport (front left) hosted a barbecue for Jewish students at his home earlier this month. “Chabad on Campus” has officially arrived at Stockton University, just in time for the 2016-7 school year, and for Jewish year 5777.

Starting this year, Rabbi Meir Rapoport and his wife Shaina are running a Chabad on Campus Jewish Center at Stockton. For now, they are running the center out of their home at 504 Biscayne Avenue—15 minutes from campus—until they find an on-campus location. They are also planning to offer High Holiday services to Stockton students in Galloway for the first time ever, at a location still being determined at the Voice’s deadline.

The Rapoports moved to a house in Galloway last spring, and recently welcomed their first child—Mendel—who is now three months old. In September, the family began welcoming Stockton students into their home for Shabbat dinners and occasional barbecues. They soon plan to offer weekly “Pizza and Parsha” gatherings at an on-campus location, more holiday programs, and “Chicken Soup Express,” a program successfully offered at other campuses that allows sick students (or their concerned family members) to call Chabad for a chicken soup delivery, that comes along with a visit by the Rabbi or Rebbetzin.

“We’re here to bring [Jewish] life to Stockton. We’re a home away from home that allows kids to get away from the craziness of school,” said Shaina, who grew up in a Chabad family that served the many Jewish students attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Stockton’s new Chabad on Campus is one of more than 230 such centers that have sprung up at colleges and universities worldwide over the past 20 years, according to Meir, the son (and one of 14 children) of Shmuel and Tova Rapoport, who founded Chabad of Atlantic County in 1984. Among them, Rowan University’s thriving campus Chabad was started two years ago.

Although Chabad of Atlantic County has long offered programs to Stockton students and welcomed them to services at their Margate and Ventnor locations, local and national Chabad leaders decided it was time to do more to engage what they believe is a growing number of Jewish students at Stockton. According to Meir, at least 10 percent of Stockton’s 8500 students are now Jewish. “We think there may be as many as 1,000,” said the Rabbi.

Since September, Meir and Shaina have been working hard to reach out to new and returning students by setting up tables on campus offering information on Chabad events. (Though Mendel can’t talk yet, he still helps with “tabling,” said Shaina; his presence does wonders to help the couple start conversations with students). Stockton’s Chabad on Campus also has a brand-new upbeat webs ite—called jewishstockton.com— and an active Facebook page.

Despite these outreach efforts, Chabad’s most recent gatherings have been relatively intimate, with 7-15 Jewish students attending. Although that’s a far cry from the 100 students that regularly attend the Shabbat dinners hosted by Shaina’s family at University of Wisconsin in Madison (which has 41,000 students), the size of the group is not what’s important.

“G-d willing, we could have 100 students on a Friday night, but probably not. It’s not about the numbers. Every single person is important,” noted the Rebbetzin. “In college, people are shaping what the rest of their life will be like. We can shape many worlds by reaching one person.”

The seven students who attended the Rapoports’ first Shabbat dinner of the semester “stayed for 4-5 hours, singing and schmoozing,” said the Rabbi. Young Jewish men and women got a chance to meet, “which is good,” said the Rabbi, and interesting discussions sprung up on Jewish and non- Jewish topics.

One of those topics was the upcoming High Holidays. Several students said they couldn’t go home and asked what was happening on campus. One student bluntly told Rapoport, “’Services are great, but I can’t do the hours and hours thing,’” said the Rabbi.

That student was not alone in wanting an “abbreviated service” said Rapoport, noting that directors of campus Chabad centers are well aware of this problem. “We figure out ways to make [services] shorter and more enjoyable for students. We know students won’t come for the whole service.”

Yet rather than cutting anything out of the traditional High Holiday service, he said, campus Chabad centers usually start services early, so that by the time students roll out of bed and arrive at services, they are right on time for the Torah service and Amidah.

“We don’t insist that everyone observe everything in the traditional way,” stressed the Rabbi. “Our motto is ‘Zero Pressure, Total Pleasure.’”

This means students don’t need to attend the entire High Holiday Service. There is no pressure for them to attend Shabbat dinners every week, or to do any kind of religious observance. They are welcome to just come to the Rapoports for a taste of family life, a home-cooked meal, and to enjoy the company of their Jewish peers.

“My whole life has been dedicated to creating opportunities for Jewish people to celebrate Judaism in an enjoyable way,” said Rapoport, whose Jewish studies have taken him to the Ukraine, Peru, South Africa, Latvia, Mexico, Australia, Belgium and Costa Rica. In many of these places, his time was not spent in Yeshivas, he added.

He has worked at day camps for kids in Europe, led a summer program in Costa Rica where students explored the wonders of both Torah and the Rain Forest, and driven a sukkah-mobile around Aruba. “That was a really interesting experience,” he said.

Meir and Shaina are looking forward to raising their son while sharing their home with students and serving the Stockton community.

“I was raised that our goal in this world is to help other people, and that’s what Mendel will learn. We’re helping kids stay in touch with their Jewish heritage. We hope that students find their own meaning in our work, be it spiritual or cultural,” said Meir.

“For those looking for a unique experience or a home-cooked meal, our doors are always open,” added Shaina. 

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