Campus caters to observant Jewish students as their enrollment rises

Jewish enrollment at Rutgers University’s flagship campus is estimated to have jumped by more than 20 percent last year, due in no small part to the growth of services on campus that are particularly appealing to Orthodox students, community leaders say.

The word has gotten out — at Jewish day schools — that Rutgers’ New Brunswick, N.J., campus has religious services and social events, kosher meals and a Jewish dormitory in the heart of the campus. It even has an eruv — a boundary, often strung from utility poles, that allows observant Jews to carry items such as keys and books that are normally off limits during religious observances.

The flourishing community life has made the school a destination for Jews, and has given the state university one of the largest Jewish populations of any campus in the country. With an estimated 7,400 Jewish students, Rutgers has more Jews than such traditional Jewish strongholds as Brandeis and Yeshiva universities, said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel.

“It was a big consideration in making me want to go here,” said Jeremy Tuch, a graduate of the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, N.J., who is studying engineering at Rutgers. “They welcome you here with open arms.”

Tuch takes his meals at the kosher kitchen at Rutgers Chabad House and attends Friday services there or at Hillel, another Jewish organization on campus.

Religious and cultural groups exist on every college campus in New Jersey, one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse areas of the country. But at the state university, the groups have proliferated and they are flourishing.

“There has definitely been an increased interest in the religious and cultural groups,” said Kerri Willson, director of student involvement. “Students have a renewed interest in exploring the spiritual aspect as they are growing up and coming to college. The groups provide a forum for that kind of exploration.”

Chabad, a missionary Hasidic movement, and Hillel, a worldwide campus-based foundation for Jewish life, have staked out prominent locations on campus and have major expansions in the works.

“We’re sort of a little island in this big ocean of the university,” said Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, executive director of Rutgers Chabad. The group started on campus more than three decades ago to reach out to Jewish students who were not particularly religious, he said. As it grew, its services began attracting more observant students who came to campus because of the Jewish life.

“When I started here (in 1978) maybe you’d see one yarmulke on College Avenue,” Carlebach said. “Now we have Talmudic study. … Rutgers is now on the map for Orthodox day schools.”

It makes sense that a university in a state with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country would attract a lot of Jews. But Rutgers, which also has vocal and active pro-Palestinian groups, has not always been viewed as a Jewish nexus.

The Zionist Organization of America filed a complaint last year on behalf of Aaron Marcus, who said he was harassed by a university administrator for his pro-Israel views. The group, based in New York, complained to the federal Department of Education that Rutgers failed to address “the hostile anti-Semitic environment” on campus. The university has denied the claim.

More recently, a satirical student newspaper ran a column praising Adolf Hitler and placed Marcus’ byline on it, prompting an investigation by the university. Rutgers President Richard McCormick called the article “extremely offensive and repugnant.”

And Jewish families from beyond New Jersey are coming to Rutgers now, the rabbi said.

“Rutgers was never part of the map of Jewish universities,” said Carlebach. “Now that has changed.”

( Chabad provides a smorgasbord of Jewish life, said Rabbi Baruch Goodman, the campus director. “For the Jews on campus it’s a very comfortable place to be — to have in the middle of a college campus a place where you can feel proud about your culture.”

Chabad is run by the Hasidic Lubavitch sect based in Brooklyn, but Goodman said Chabad welcomes all kinds of Jewish students. “Labels are for shirts, not people,” he said.

This is Chabad’s second major expansion. In 1996, it moved to its present 35,000-square-foot building from a house that was a fraction of the size. It is already the largest Chabad center in the world and the addition will add 55,000 square feet.

“What we’re doing here is going to be a pilot for other Chabad and Jewish community centers,” Carlebach said. “If you build it, they will come.”