Interview with Rabbi Eitan Webb

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Rabbi Eitan Webb founded the Chabad House at Princeton in 2002 and currently serves as its director. Rabbi Webb has been a University-recognized chaplain since 2007 and serves on the board of directors of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. As part of our examination of campus religious life, the Princeton Tory’s Mikhael Smits sits down with Rabbi Webb to discuss the Chabad, Israel, and the challenges and rewards of serving as a University chaplain.

PT: What is Chabad? What is its mission?

EW: Chabad is an approach, it is a philosophy, and it is a movement. The basic approach of Chabad is to infuse everything that we do with the joy of the awareness of God.

PT: What has it been like raising a family in a collegiate environment?

Rabbi EW: It’s been amazing. We have an opportunity to have our students interface with our children. They teach our children reading and math and music and all sorts of excellent things. In addition, they teach them some things that we may then speak with our children and say, “Hmm, might want to rethink that idea.” But it’s a tremendous opportunity and we are very grateful for it.

PT: What are the most common challenges the Jewish students face on campus, often leaving home for the first time?

EW: The biggest challenge for some students is leaving community. Students who have grown up in large or even moderately sized Jewish communities can come to Princeton and say, “Where is my place?” And for that, Chabad has become a resource to many people. On the other hand, many students that come from really small Jewish communities can come to Princeton and say, “Wow, this community is enormous! It’s amazing! It’s thrilling!” And it really really is.

PT: So what have been the highlights of your year with Chabad?

EW: For me, the highlight is when I meet an individual student who wants to talk, and I sit with her, or with him, and grapple with an issue. To me, that’s a highlight for my day. I don’t know if that’s what you want to hear. I could say other things, but for me that’s the highlight. Programmatically, we have taken Judaism on the campus and really mainstreamed it. We have brought Judaism out of our own local building and splashed it across the campus in a happy and a joyous way. That includes the Purim party that took place last week, that includes Lawnparties and bringing kosher food there, that includes our organization on Prospect called JOTS, Jews on the Street, which has a coordinator at each of the eating clubs that is planning events, Jewish events, in those clubs. We’ll be having a seder at Ivy. The fifth annual kosher seder at Ivy Club and the second annual kosher seder at Tower will both be taking place in just a few weeks. And that will be in addition to the seders that will take place here and at the Graduate School as well.

PT: How does the University help students practice their faith? What more could it do?

Rabbi EW: Princeton is incredibly welcoming to every sort of individual. And that includes members of faith. In all of my time here, I have seen faculty, administrators, professors, all be really really kind, welcoming, and accepting. At the same time, there is a challenge of lack of awareness. If a professor is unaware that a particular activity is meaningful to the student, they’re not going to know to make those accommodations, so there is definitely a place for Chabad as an institution to raise awareness for particular Jewish practices.

PT: What role would you like to see Chabad play in bringing Israel to campus?

EW: I would like to see Jewish students proud of the fact that we have a homeland, and I think that they should not only be proud that they have a homeland, but also have an appreciation, a deep reservoir of knowledge as to what that homeland consists of and what that means.

PT: Within the Jewish community, as we know, there’s a wide range of opinions on every subject, and the Israeli-Arab conflict has proven particularly contentious. What does Chabad do in terms of entertaining these various positions?

EW: Chabad is a place that operates according to the principles of Torah. In the Torah we are told how we are meant to treat every other individual with respect, with honor. We are told how we are meant to conduct our own selves in accordance with various statements and commandments. And we’re told in the Torah that there were some people who did not listen. They did things in a different path, in a different way, and those people too were fully part of the community. And in a place like Princeton, I think we have to take that as our model and look and say, “there’s one people, who do all sorts of things, we can take opinions, and disagree about the various things that people do.” But what people do is different from what people are. And we need to always see people for what they are: creations in the image of God, holy people who are always deserving of respect. And then we need to say if we don’t agree with them that, sure, we can voice disagreement.

PT: You’ve been seen at Whig-Clio events and you’ve been fairly visible in campus politics. How does your politics affect your work and vice-versa?

EW: I would say my work affects my politics insofar as I personally would like to see a world that is moral, and just, but I don’t take sides in political parties. I think that today, certain opinions of classical Judaism might align better with one party or another, but not twenty years ago, and maybe not in twenty years. I don’t think that Judaism is fundamentally party-centric.

PT: To what do you attribute the recent bout of anti-Semitism on college campuses, and why are we not seeing it here at Princeton?

EW: I would attribute it to a lack of education on the part of those who are being anti-Semitic, or conducting anti-Semitic activities, and lack of education on the part of the Jewish recipients. What I mean by that is if a person does an anti-Semitic act, it’s almost certainly because they’re not comprehending what anti-Semitism is, what a Jew is, what these activities mean, almost for certain. But in Princeton, I just think that people tend to be more educated. They also tend to be less politically active in general. But I think it’s because they really are, at Princeton they’re really kind, very good people, and very curious, and they ask a lot of questions. And when you ask questions you get answers. And when you get answers, then that moderates your opinions in many ways.

PT: What are the biggest challenges Jewish students face at Princeton? Do you believe the eating club system places burdens on kosher upperclassmen, or are there other things that come to mind?

EW: I do believe the eating club system could place burdens on kosher students, but the biggest challenge for students is not necessarily for Jews only. The biggest challenge is simply the workload. Students are given so much work that they don’t have a lot of time for private meditation and for personal reflection and therefore that could affect their religious growth.

PT: What does Chabad do to respond to the other challenges on campus—the workload for example?

EW: We have the study breaks every week that are quite well attended, and the study breaks are more than just opportunities for food. There’s always an opportunity to pull out a book, to study. So every Sunday night, we have a late meal, and it’s always kosher and delicious too. And then throughout the weak, we have many opportunities for study. We have actually hired a new rabbi who does private tutoring two days a week in any subject related to Judaism, and that really does let students take the little time that they have and use it effectively.

PT: Can you describe the Chabad’s relationship with the University administration?

EW: It’s very good. Chabad is recognized by the University as a chaplaincy, and we are very proud that the University has taken such an interest in our doings. President Eisgruber was here recently for Shabbos dinner. The dean of religious life, Allison Boden, is a close friend.

PT: Does the administration have any formal control over Chabad with respect to the budget, the planning, or seats on the board? Who owns the house?

EW: No. The house is owned by the Chabad, and thank God our alumni through the years have been very helpful in both shaping our vision, guiding our activities and also enabling it all to happen from a financial standpoint.

PT: What’s been your favorite thing and what’s been the biggest challenge about serving as a spiritual advisor to otherwise academically engaged college students?

EW: One of the great things about being a chaplain at Princeton is you are always challenged. Not a day goes by that I don’t get a question that requires me to sit back and really think, go do some research, check out some books, and then come back. So I would say that the Talmudic statement “I learn some from my masters and more from my peers, or from my students most of all,” I would say this statement is perfectly apt for Princeton.

PT: What should our readers take away from our conversations about Chabad?

EW: Every Friday night, the campus is in session. There is a kosher, home-cooked dinner right off University Place, and you’re invited. Stop in. The food is warm, the people are friendly, the atmosphere is great, and we look forward to saying hi.

Mikhael Smits is a freshman from Newton, MA, tentatively majoring in the Politics Department. He can be reached at msmits@princeton.edu.

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