Rabbi Hersh Loschak is standing at a table outside the student center at Rowan University. It’s Sept. 21, a late summer Thursday. The weather in Glassboro, New Jersey, feels like fall: 70 degrees, sunny, a little breezy.
Students walk to and from the center. The rabbi and a Rowan junior, Josh Maron, are manning the table and asking students if they are Jewish.
Some say yes and stop by to learn more about the university’s Chabad house. Others say yes, politely decline an invite and keep walking. A man who says he’s Catholic approaches the table to learn more. Several non-Jewish students smile at the bearded, yarmulke-wearing rabbi, as he describes himself, and keep walking to their next class, activity or hangout.
Loschak is trying to organize a minyan for later in the week. It’s just hard to find 10 students.
“Sometimes, we’ll get one,” he said.
The difference between a Hillel and a campus Chabad house is that a Chabad places more emphasis on religious practice, according to Maron. The 25-year-old serves as Chabad’s senator to the Rowan assembly of representatives from different student groups.
He said a handful of people are involved in the house’s executive board meetings. The rabbi explained that about 30 come to weekly Shabbat dinners at his home up the street on Hamilton Road.
Maron lives more than a half-hour north in Cherry Hill, so he doesn’t always go home on weekends like many other students. Chabad has become a sort of home on campus for him.
“It creates a home-away-from-home atmosphere,” he said. “I really gravitated to that. It meant a lot to me.”
Loschak often goes to the center of campus to “table” like this early in the semester. And while several students stop by, the ones who stay are often already involved.
Isaac Azaraev, a sophomore finance major, is done with classes for the day, so he walks over to hang out with his Chabad rabbi. Last year, the Jewish kid from Marlboro, New Jersey, started organizing bagels, lox and tefillin events with Loschak in the student center. People walked by, grabbed something to eat and got tefillin wrapped on their arms, a Chabad ritual that reminds Jews to stay close to God.
“I believe that without having trust in God, your life is going to go nowhere,” Azaraev said.
Loschak and his rebbetzin, Fraidy Loschak, live in a three-story home on a quiet street. There’s a menorah in the front yard and a child’s bike on the ground next to it. The rabbi and rebbetzin have six children.
Inside, the downstairs living area is open. No tables or chairs. The couple uses it to have family dinners throughout the week and Shabbat dinners on Friday nights. Before COVID, Fraidy Loschak was cooking for as many as 50 students.
A little more than a day from now, this room will be filled with young people, song and the smell of fresh food. But now, it’s as quiet as the street outside. The rabbi is back from tabling. The rebbetzin must leave on an errand soon and then pick up the children from school. (They attend the Cheder Chabad on the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy campus in the Philadelphia suburbs, more than 30 miles north.)
Seated on folding chairs in their open living room, the couple explained how they met through Chabad circles and a matchmaker. The rabbi was from Southern California and the rebbetzin Florida. Both grew up in Chabad communities and wanted to live this life.
They preferred a campus because they wanted to help young people on independent spiritual journeys for the first time. The 30-somethings found Rowan 10 years ago because it was growing its student body and in a state with a large Jewish population.
Crowds at early Shabbat dinners consisted of less than 10 people. But then they grew to about 50 before COVID closed campus activity. In the years since, they have steadily grown again. “It’s fun,” the rabbi said. “Everyone comes here after a long week. They see friends. There’s singing. There’s schmoozing.”
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Loschak also host a welcome-back barbecue at the beginning of the school year, Sukkah meals and Torah study classes. An eight-week course called Sinai Scholars teaches about “being Jewish in the modern era,” the rebbetzin said. It includes sessions on love and relationships, Jewish identity and Shabbat.
Fraidy estimated that about 30 students took advantage of those classes last semester.
“Anything for Jews to come out and feel their Jewish pride in a safe place,” she said.