At Rutgers University bus swoops up College Avenue, barreling towards the center of the massive school’s main campus. On its left is Rutgers’ central Alexander Library, and on the right, blending in with the surrounding collegiate air but taking a place of undoubted prestige, sits the 90,000 square-foot Les Turchin Chabad House – Lubavitch. The bus pulls up at the first stop on College Avenue and opens its emblazoned red doors, depositing a gaggle of students in front of the Chabad House’s welcoming wooden entranceway.
It’s actually quite jarring to see the Chabad House. While its stately red brick facade does match those of the public university’s own construction, there’s no mistaking the origins of this building’s design: it’s an enormous replica of 770, with three neo-gothic spires rising like a beacon and calling out to all of Rutgers University’s Jewish students. Turn the corner and you can see the 770 continue almost endlessly down the block, all part of the Chabad House’s recent shining $12 million extension, which was completed two years ago. The Rutgers Chabad House is the biggest campus Chabad center anywhere, and easily vies for a spot as one of the largest Chabad Houses in the world.
Rabbi Yosef and Mrs. Rivkie Carlebach founded the Rutgers Chabad House in 1978, running their activities out of a rented room on the fourth floor of the student center. In 1981 the Chabad House moved into a 2,200-square-foot converted firehouse which, while only a block off of campus, was a world away. Today Chabad is the university’s largest student group, with a campus staff that includes Rabbi Boruch and Mrs. Sara Goodman, who arrived in 1985, and Rabbi Shayke and Mrs. Chayale Shagalow. “We’ve been very blessed,” says Rabbi Carlebach, as we sit in his second floor office. He holds up a Rutgers visitors guide and flips through its pages. “This is printed by the university. We’re listed as part of university housing, as an official university meal program and as a Jewish organization.”
Indeed, the Chabad House is very much a part of official campus life. Its name is printed on the university’s official map, and hundreds of students come through its doors each day. Rutgers’ kosher meal plan comes out of the Chabad House’s state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, itself a powerful magnet for always-famished college students. When I walked through the dining room in the early afternoon, I saw dozens of students hurriedly eating what was lunch for some and more than likely breakfast for others. Construction of a kosher coffee shop is underway.
An Immersive Experience
When the original 770 building was built on campus 16 years ago, a girls’ dormitory was included. “Twenty-two years ago when we were planning the building and wanted to include a dorm, I wrote in to the Rebbe and got an answer that I should discuss it with other Shluchim in similar situations. That’s what I did and we got a lot of encouragement from them. The first day we opened we had 28 girls in our dorm,” says Rabbi Carlebach.
The dormitory is still a central feature of the Chabad House’s work; the new building includes a boys’ one too. In all, there are 43 attractive dorm suites in the building, each with its own bathroom and shower. With so many students living in the building, many of their friends inevitably find their way into the Chabad House as well. Strolling through the building’s three floors, I spotted clusters of students studying and lounging throughout the Wi-Fi-connected center.
“All of our accommodations are designed to appeal to as wide a spectrum of Jewish students here on campus as possible,” says Rabbi Carlebach. “We explain to every student who comes in here to look at our dorms that we do not force anything on anyone. We have a few basic rules—the dorms are separate, which we are very strict about, and no drugs—but otherwise you are free to live your life as you want. Our theory is that if a student wants to go to the party at the frat house down the block on a Friday night, that’s fine, but they’ll have to pass by the Shabbos meal on their way out. You can’t live in such an atmosphere and not have something rub off.”
Rabbi Carlebach adds that by policy neither he nor any of the staff hover over the students at meal times. “We don’t want students feeling that if they come in here to eat they’re going to have to talk to a rabbi. We want them to feel
comfortable here, and baruch Hashem they do.”
At one of the first Kinusei Hashluchim (“It wasn’t international yet; we were upstairs in one of the old, unheated rooms in 788. I think it was 1984”), Rabbi Carlebach remembers Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov, head of the Rebbe’s secretariat and director of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, sharing some advice with the 70 or so gathered Shluchim: “Don’t worry about the big politicians,” Rabbi Hodakov counseled. “Think about the small politicians.”
It’s not clear whether Rabbi Hodakov was taking a page out of former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s renowned adage that “all politics is local,” but Rabbi Carlebach took the words to mean he should connect with the university’s administration.
“Later that year I took some matzah and went to meet Rutgers President Edward Bloustein,” recalls Rabbi Carlebach. “He looked at the matzah and he told me,
“‘Rabbi, I’m an avowed atheist.’
“So I answered him, ‘Well, I’m a diabetic.’
“He was confused. ‘What are you talking about?’
“‘What are you talking about? I’m not trying to preach to you. I’m here and you’re my president and I wanted to come in to say hello.’
“‘Rabbi, you and I are going to be good friends.’
“We had a very good relationship with him, and that began a wonderful relationship with the university that remains to this day.”
Founded in 1766, Rutgers University is a wealthy public institution, and a powerful local and state entity. Not much happens in the area without Rutgers’ consent, and Rabbi Hodakov’s early words of advice have proven valuable in the years since. With friends and allies throughout the school, Rutgers Chabad House has managed to avoid many possible pitfalls, build a colossal center in the heart of campus and establish itself in the forefront of university life.
Doors Wide Open for YOU!
Less than an hour away from Brooklyn, scenic New Brunswick and its picturesque university campus are surprisingly easy to reach. And although the Chabad House is bustling when school is in session, the college schedule leaves the building quiet for more than four months of the year. Containing two different shuls—a new, specially designed Sephardic shul was recently opened—a gleaming commercial kitchen, beautiful mikvah and dining space that can comfortably seat up to 500 guests, it’s easy to see why the Rutgers Chabad House can play host to many kinds of events. Its 43 dorm suites are clean and spacious, and with no electric locks to worry about, the building is an obvious destination for your own family Shabbos sheva brachos or a bar mitzvah. The Chabad House’s own yearly dinner, which draws political celebrities such as Governor Chris Christie, is held in the building’s main hall.
“This building is busy throughout the school year, but we want it to be active throughout the year,” adds Rabbi Carlebach. “It really is perfect for so many different types of events, but most of all I think people will get a sense of pride when they see this building and understand what goes on here on a regular basis. There’s no way you can see it and not say ‘Wow.’”
He’s right, I think to myself as I walk out into the drizzling rain.