Chabad marks decade of teaching and celebrating Judaism on campus
A decade ago, Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife Runya began
holding weekly dinners in a small, one-bedroom apartment on Vermont Avenue with only five members.
Today, their group â Chabad â includes more than 100 members and is run from the 6,000 sq. ft. Chabad House just off the Row.
The Wagners founded the group with the goal of offering USCâs Jewish community an opportunity to practice their faith in a more traditional manner, naming it Chabad â a Hebrew acronym that translates to wisdom, understanding and knowledge.
âOur goal was to try to bring the joy of Judaism to Jews on campus, in every level of Jew that they may be,â said Runya Wagner, a religious director at the Office of Religious Life.
Since its inception in 1999, the group has grown to become one of the major Jewish institutions on campus. Despite the expansion, the Wagners say their aim was always to run Chabad as a close-knit group with a focus on the religionâs core ideals.
âWe run things a little differently … We do things more traditionally and itâs a family-run group,â Runya Wagner said. âWe make sure individuals are still able to benefit from experience through personal attention and opportunities.â
When the group began, it offered just one class teaching members about aspects of Judaism. In the initial years after the founding, growth was slow, as some students were hesitant to join in Chabadâs events because of its reputation for being conservative.
âWe faced students with preconceived notions of who we may be, a traditional Jewish couple,â Dov Wagner said. âBut people are realizing now that we offer opportunities for every level of Jew.â
Today, Chabad offers students 11 different weekly classes on various Jewish topics, and also regularly hosts guest speakers, Friday night Shabbat dinners and community service opportunities. They also continue to celebrate holidays in the traditional fashion.
âStudents … want to know there is a strong Jewish presence on campus and want to be a part of it,â Runya Wagner said.
The relative increase of Jewish students on campus â Dov Wagner said the proportion had increased from about 7 percent of USCâs student body to about 11 percent in the last 10 years â also contributed to the expansion of the club.
âWe have seen an influx of Jews coming to USC, and those that do are more involved,â he said. âWe have been reaching more and more students on campus.â
A number of those who have attended the weekly Shabbats and participate in the activities said they appreciate the family-run aspect of the group.
âThey are a vital part of the Jewish community. Itâs a home away from home,â said Noa Oldak, a sophomore majoring in anthropology. âThey never impose any aspect of Judaism onto you.â
Ben Mitnick, an alumnus who was a member of Sigma Alpha Mu, a fraternity of Jewish men, said Chabadâs flexibility gave him a convenient way of practicing his religion while also being involved in other activities.
âThe group is very welcoming to fraternities, it allowed the members to express their level of Judaism as well as maintaining their practice but also maintaining the social and philanthropic aspect[s] of Greek life,â Mitnick said.
This Friday, the group will hold the annual Shabbat 500 â a special version of a weekly dinner event meant to bring people together to celebrate Judaism.
âWeâre trying to get as many Jews and non-Jewish students to learn about Jewish heritage,â Runya Wagner said. âWe try to get the different Jewish organizations on campus together for one weekend and many students who donât usually participate, do come around to Shabbat 500.â
The â500â in the title reflects the number of attendees Chabad hopes to attract. The group is hoping to have attendees from the other Jewish groups on campus, including fraternities and sororities.
âItâs the biggest Shabbat for the students on campus. Itâs a great way to have a big dinner with other Jews,â said Eric Kawalsky, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering and member of Sigma Alpha Mu.
In December, Chabad will officially commemorate its 10th anniversary by holding a banquet at the Galen Center.
âSupporters and alumni will get a sense of where the organization is and motivate them to be engaged and involved to continue to grow,â Dov Wagner said.
The group hopes to build on its success by adding activities and expanding its network to include alumni as well.
âWe have so many Jews on campus that we hope to get involved and we also want to keep in touch with alumni and create activities for them which will then create networking and opportunities for students,â Runya Wagner said.
Dov Wagner echoes this goal for overall growth.
âWe want to keep up with all the events,â said Dov Wagner. âWe want to keep that home feeling but to grow and be able to keep excitement.â