Sarah Billian – Sophian
Times are tough – that much a fool could tell. And as unemployment rates rose last fall, Smith College similarly struggled to find ways to cut costs. Dean of Religious Life, Jennifer Walters, made the controversial decision to scrap all three religious chaplains, in hope that Smith might gain religious diversity and inclusion as a result.
And while Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Bruce Seltzer will no longer fill his previous post come 2010, all is not lost for Smith’s sizable Jewish population. Walters’ resolution was announced just as Orthodox Jewish education and outreach group Chabad Lubavitch began to make its mark on what it calls the four-college area, including Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges.
Chabad of the Four Colleges, led by Rabbi Shmuel Kravitsky and his wife Ariel, is an affiliate of the international Chabad-Lubavitch movement, an educational campaign that sponsors a myriad of groups on college campuses, community centers, schools and other centers of Jewish life.
Chabad, according to the Kravitskys’ Web site, aims to “help educate individuals in order to empower them to be leaders in their own Jewish communities.” While their target audience is Jewish, students of all religious backgrounds are welcome to the events and classes that Chabad offers. No prior knowledge of Judaism is required to attend any of Chabad’s programming, fortunately for “lapsed Jews” like me.
Contrary to what one might think, Rabbi Kravitsky, who was born in Israel and emigrated to the U.S. as a child, has not always been observant. Known as a “baal teshuva,” or one who returns to Judaism, he attended both secular and religious schools, but came back to the faith later in his life. His wife, who studied sociology, poetry and sustainable agriculture at Hampshire College, is also a baal teshuva.
Since coming to town in the fall of 2008, the Kravitskys have successfully executed a number of events. Perhaps their most popular happening the past year was the chartered “Purim Bus,” which made its way to each of the Five Colleges this past March for the Jewish festival of Purim. The holiday celebrates a story from the biblical Book of Esther, in which the queen saves the Jewish people from a plot to destroy them, masterminded by the evil Haman.
Students who took a moment to step inside the bus were privy to music, dance, delicious food and non-alcoholic drink, as well as a ceremonial reading from the passage of the Book of Esther that describes the brave and heroic queen.
Those who were lucky enough to be on campus before the official opening of the college this year were treated to a free concert by Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, a baal teshuva himself. Matis fans have the Kravitskys and Rabbi Seltzer to thank, both of whom worked tirelessly to pull the concert together.
As far as more traditional academic offerings this fall, Rabbi Shmuel will teach a class on Kabbalah every Thursday at the UMass Chabad House. Smith students will be able to partake in a similar course on Tuesday evenings, co-taught by Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Seltzer. Although not yet accredited, the class, entitled “Kabbalah 101- Insights into Jewish Mysticism,” will delve into basic spiritual concepts and clarify misconceptions about the school of thought embraced by everyone from Madonna to Britney Spears. Rabbi Shmuel will also offer one-on-one instruction in all matters of Judaism to students of all four colleges.
Both Ariel and Shmuel hope to see a Chabad club of sorts established at Smith. “Judaism is all about action,” the Rabbi said. He need not worry. Smithies are a notoriously overcommitted bunch, and it shouldn’t be hard to find a group of students to spearhead such a group.
With planning already underway for High Holiday celebrations this fall in Northampton and Amherst, the Kravitskys have their hands full. Adding to their busy schedule is the couple’s recent move into their new home on North Pleasant Street in Amherst. As they unpack their things and acquaint themselves with the neighborhood, the Kravitskys aim to make their house a home not just for them, but for the Jewish community of the four-college area as well.