By Maayan Jaffe, Baltimore Jewish Times
Last July, Rabbi Mendy and Sheiny Rivkin took posts as the new Chabad shluchim, or emissaries, at Towson University. Their goal, they say, is to give students “whatever Judaism we can.”
The couple say they always knew they would become shluchim. But Rabbi Rivkin, who was raised in New York, said it was important for him to do it in a place “where it counts,” where he had to start from scratch, building a framework for constituents. He said this is the case with Towson, which only in recent years has experienced an increase in Jewish non-commuter students.
Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland, said the decision to find a Chabad couple for Towson came as the university’s population grew. The school now has around 20,000 students, he said, at least 2,500 of whom are Jewish. Many of the students — as much as 30 percent — live in dorms on campus and come from out of state.
“We felt at this point it was justified to have a Chabad presence,” said Rabbi Kaplan. He said he made some contacts and quickly received a grant from the Rohr Foundation to support the shluchim. A separate donor, who preferred anonymity, provided funding for Towson’s Chabad house.
The Rivkins and their 14-month-old son, Sholom Ber, are moved in and getting comfortable. They even managed to run Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, including a joint break-fast with the Towson Hillel group. Yom Kippur services drew as many as 40 students at a time, while the break-fast hosted 65.
The Rivkins says they plan to offer knowledge and warmth to students. “At the end of the game, we want to give the students in these four years the ability to make informed decisions [about Judaism] … to make more educated decisions about what their Jewish family should look like,” said Rabbi Rivkin.
Mrs. Rivkin, who was raised in Italy, said she will try to provide a warm, family-friendly environment for students, a place where they will want to come and hang out, or get a home-cooked meal.
“Judaism is based around the family,” said Rabbi Rivkin.
And they say they are not worried about feeling isolated living in a largely non-observant area. “We are lucky because Baltimore is very close,” said Mrs. Rivkin. “Look, people have done it before. And I always have my husband with me.”
But the Rivkins say they recognize they are in for a challenge. Rabbi Rivkin, who helped start the Chabad house at California State University in Northridge, said students in the Northeast tend to be more reluctant to interact with Chabad. He said Jews in this region are “more structured, less spiritual” in their Judaism.
“A lot of people are not familiar with Chabad or are even prejudiced against it, maybe a little intimidated by us,” he said. “The students are more apprehensive here. The hardest part will be to get students over that apprehension.”
Rabbi Kaplan said he is confident in the Rivkins’ ability to connect with students. He noted that it is in their college years when students tend to develop Jewishly.
“When these students have Jewish input, you can change things dramatically,” said Rabbi Kaplan. “College kids are our future.”