Jewish life at smaller universities a ‘challenge’ but not impossible
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Jewish life at smaller universities a ‘challenge’ but not impossible

“It’s a challenge,” Weinstein said. “You have to seek it out.”

Rabbi Shmuel Weinstein, RMU students, Miriam Levenson, Sarah Jackson and former President Christopher Howard. Photo provided by Chabad on Campus.
Rabbi Shmuel Weinstein, RMU students, Miriam Levenson, Sarah Jackson and former President Christopher Howard. Photo provided by Chabad on Campus.

Students can find options for Jewish life on many smaller university and college campuses across western Pennsylvania, but they often must take the initiative to seek out resources and experiences.

While both Chabad on Campus and Hillel JUC of Pittsburgh have an established presence at larger schools like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, both groups offer some programming at several of the smaller schools as well.

Sara Weinstein, co-director of Chabad on Campus in Oakland, acknowledged there aren’t as many Jewish college students at universities such as Carlow, Chatham, Duquesne, Point Park and Robert Morris, but said the smaller numbers allow for individual relationships.

“We go way back with alumni at the smaller schools,” she said, “because we were able to give them more individualized attention.”

Group activity ebbs and flows at the smaller schools, based on the number of Jewish students and their level of interest, Weinstein said.

“At times, there were groups,” she continued. “I used to have a women’s class at Chatham. We would meet for lunch every Wednesday, and there was a solid group of five, six or seven girls and it was a highlight of all our weeks.”

Chabad on Campus has reached out to faculty and administrators at various schools and has established official student organizations at Chatham, Duquesne and Robert Morris, Weinstein said. Chabad continues to talk with Point Park and has a solid relationship with the Catholic Carlow University, where Weinstein’s husband, Rabbi Shmuel Weinstein, recently gave the benediction at President Kathy W. Humphrey’s installation ceremony.

Chabad attempts to build relationships with students at the different universities, Weinstein said, both by coming to the schools for events like a menorah lighting on Chanukah, and by extending invitations to activities taking place off campus, like Chabad on Campus’ annual Rosh Hashanah dinner, which might draw 300 students from various colleges.
COVID made things more difficult, she noted.

“We were not allowed on campus,” she said, “especially on the smaller campuses.”

The organization pivoted, though, and engaged in activities like delivering Passover packages to the universities.
Chabad on Campus, Weinstein said, tries to be present for activity fairs to meet people. The group is also planning to hire someone to help with outreach at the various schools.

Chabad works to establish good relationships with not only students but also faculty, administrators and the different chaplains on the campuses, she said.

Weinstein views campus outreach as important, not only for Jewish students but for students of other faiths as well. A few years ago, she said, Chabad on Campus set up at a park across the street from Point Park and served matzah ball soup — and it wasn’t only Jewish students who enjoyed the food.

“We talked with Arab and Muslim students,” she said. “It was a positive interaction and maybe built a little goodwill.”

That goodwill extends to Christian students, as well, especially at Carlow and Duquesne, both Catholic Universities.
Hillel JUC also engages in significant outreach at smaller universities.

Chatham students meeting Weinstein grandchildren during a Purim giveaway. (L to R: Eli Welton and Chaya Mushka Welton) Photo by Sara Weinstein.

“Every Jewish student,” said Hillel JUC Executive Director and CEO Daniel Marcus, “is welcome to participate, to join in Hillel JUC. They are part of the Hillel JUC community.”

Hillel’s Jewish educator engages with the leadership of the Jewish students on various campuses, Marcus said, and the organization is available as a resource and as support.

Hillel also has relationships with school administrators at Chatham and Duquesne, and the organization is appreciative of those relationships, Marcus said.

Hillel has sponsored events like falafel and shawarma dinners and offered Shabbat resources, Marcus said, adding that his organization is eager to support students at smaller schools “if, and when, there is a desire from students on these campuses. We are always open to supporting and providing for their needs.”

At Duquesne University, Father Bill Christy, who heads the campus ministry and is also the university chaplain, said that “being a chaplain means the whole community.”

Christy provides spiritual first aid to non-Catholic students before referring them to their own tradition, he said.

“With our Jewish students we have a very good relationship with Hillel at Pitt,” he said.

Hillel has a student group at Duquesne, as well as another group specifically for Jewish law school students.

Duquesne also has a good relationship with Chabad on Campus, Christy said, adding that Shmuel Weinstein came to campus for Chanukah to light the menorah.

The chaplain said the university is working to have a kosher meal option included at the school, especially for night-school students.

“They’re the ones that have the least chance to get off campus for a meal,” he said.

Now that COVID fears have lessened, Sara Weinstein said Chabad on Campus is anxious to begin reaching out in person again to Jewish students.

On Nov. 4, Chabad on Campus will host a Shabbat dinner for Carlow University students at the invitation of the school’s president. The dinner, she said, will include a concert with the Violins of Hope.

Still, Weinstein noted, Jewish life for students on smaller campuses isn’t always easy.

“It’s a challenge,” Weinstein said. “You have to seek it out.”

Despite the difficulties, Chabad on Campus has found a way to make connections, Weinstein said, noting that she and her husband don’t assess success by the number of students they reach — rather it’s the relationships they build, what she considers an extended-Jewish family.

“We’ve had one-on-one relationships with students that continued, and we have remained connected in our lives for years after college,” she said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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