Hillel and Chabad at USC
Hillel and Chabad Report Record-Breaking Student Engagement on Campus
When Abigail Yosian, a USC senior, wants a “very big social atmosphere” on erev Shabbat, she goes to USC Hillel’s Grand Center for Jewish Life on South Hoover Street. She socializes with friends and mingles with some of the 150 to 200 students (the number can vary widely) who come for services and Friday night dinner.
During the week, the rec room serves as a place for Hillel-goers to get snacks, eat amongst one another, and indulge in some quiet amidst the craziness on campus. Between classes, Hillel is a comfortable place for a good number of USC’s Jewish students (and even some non-Jewish students) to take a break and to study.
“Hillel is an integral part of my day to day life on campus. In between classes, I love going to Hillel for some snacks, coffee, and a chance to see my friends and chat with the staff. It’s easily my home away from home,” said Yosian.
USC Hillel’s Executive Director Dave Cohn said, “Hillel is all about student empowerment, and is a pluralistic Jewish community inclusive of Jews of all backgrounds and identities. Students recognize we are a community built with them in mind, and everyone who is part of Hillel can contribute. It makes us approachable and welcoming in which all who take part in our center can grow and innovate as a community.”
Not too far from Hillel is the Chabad house situated on Severance Street. Run by Rabbi Wagner and his wife, Runya Wagner, Chabad has been serving the USC Jewish community for over 20 years. Together, Rabbi Dov Wagner and Runya have provided Jewish students a supportive and nurturing “home away from home,” with each student in mind.
“Our way of teaching is to tell students we are here for them.”
“When students come to the Chabad house they’re not just going to an organization, they’re joining our family, they’re joining our home. I think that’s very meaningful to people, especially in college when you’re in a bubble,” said Rabbi Wagner.
Emissaries and observers alike attribute Chabad’s appeal to college students from a range of Jewish backgrounds to the personal relationships the rabbis and rebbetzins cultivate with students and the family-like atmosphere they create.
“Our way of teaching is to tell students we are here for them. Whether you want to grow your sense of Judaism, or just participate in Shabbat, we are here. We strongly believe a Jew is a Jew, and there are no strings attached to that. We take every student as they are and try to be there for them in meaningful ways throughout their college lives and beyond. Our core value is ‘Ahava Am Israel’ – love for every Jew.”
Dorian Aftalion, a USC alumna, explained how Chabad shaped her college experience.
“Not only is Chabad a community within USC, but it is a big family. Rabbi Dov Wagner, Runya, and their family are welcoming, friendly, and have given me and many other students the ability to connect and learn about Judaism. Their Shabbats are filled with songs and prayers, along with a delicious home cooked meal. You really feel like you’re part of a family,” Aftalion said.
She added, “My favorite event that Chabad hosted was an evening shared with Holocaust Survivor Marte Cohen. Marte shared her courageous story with over 80 USC students, and the Chabad house was filled with an immense amount of faith and synergy.” This is just one of many events Chabad has hosted that have helped foster college students’ connection with Judaism.
Together, Hillel and Chabad account for the vast majority of organized Jewish life on campuses, at USC and beyond. Two groups, both aiming to celebrate Jewish culture and provide a community center to explore Judaism.
When asked how the two organizations have been affected by COVID, both Rabbi Wagner and Dave Cohn gave us promising hope.
Chabad’s Rabbi Wagner explained, “In our experience at Chabad, more than ever before, students are more driven, more ambitious, and are looking for real connections. It used to be a big deal to get 15 students to our Chabad house. Now, the average is 200. For us, it is not about achieving success for the organization – it is about them, the students, and about connecting with something bigger than ourselves. That is what Chabad is about and why there are more students looking for meaningful growth than ever before.” Hillel’s Dave Cohn offered a similar response.
“At USC, Jewish involvement has only gotten stronger. Thankfully, Hillel took a grassroots approach to keeping people safe and maintaining our Jewish events. From the time campus closed, we built ‘Hillel Without Walls,’ with students hosting events and programs virtually via Zoom. Fall 2021 was the most connected and involved semester across the board in Jewish life than anyone can remember at USC. Hillel reached 1300 unique students in the first semester, Shabbat attendance was often over 200 per week, and people were craving that sense of connection and belonging,” said Dave Cohn.
Both Chabad and Hillel hope their programs will inspire students on campus to learn more about Israel, to engage in conversations that challenge their beliefs and to ultimately see Israel as part of their own Jewish identities.
For more information, visit www.chabadusc.com and www.uschillel.org.