Rabbi Eitan Webb stands at one of the gateways to the Princeton University campus.
Photo by Marilyn Silverstein
On one foot
What’s new: Rabbi Eitan Webb, director of Chabad on Campus, gains chaplaincy status at Princeton University after initial rejection
What changed: School administrators were satisfied that Chabad was cooperating with the university’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel
Quote: “Now we will have more options for our diverse Jewish community to find ways to be connected.” — Rev. Alison Boden, Princeton’s dean of religious life
July 17, 2008
In a reversal of a 2007 decision, Princeton University has granted chaplaincy status to Rabbi Eitan Webb, director of Chabad on Campus there.
Webb, who has been a presence on the Princeton campus since 2002, will officially join the ranks of the university’s affiliated chaplains when the academic year begins in September. His colleagues include Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel, and 12 religious leaders from a variety of Christian denominations.
University president Shirley Tilghman denied Webb’s application for chaplaincy status last year, stating that she wanted to see tangible evidence of cooperation between the CJL and Chabad, according to the Chabad rabbi.
“She wanted to see cooperation, and she also needed to understand a little bit more what Chabad does,” he said.
Over the past year, Tilghman and the Rev. Alison Boden, Princeton’s dean of religious life and the chapel, attended Shabbat dinners at the Chabad House. At the same time, the CJL and Chabad cooperated on several joint initiatives — Shabbat 360, a Shabbat dinner that drew close to 360 students; Sushi in the Sukkah; and a Chinese Shabbat dinner prior to Pesach.
In May, Webb received a private letter from Tilghman notifying him of her decision to grant him chaplaincy status.
“I feel validated, you know,” Webb said during a recent interview in the library of the new Chabad House just a few steps from the Ivy League campus. “It’s really primarily a recognition. It means I’m involved in the religious life of the campus. We’re happy that the university agrees with our assessment that we’re doing good work.”
The rabbi said he never doubted that Princeton would officially recognize Chabad one day.
“The university is very good at doing the right thing,” he said, “but it’s a big university and they need time to process things. We always have been quite sure this would happen eventually, because Chabad fulfilled the criteria of chaplaincy.”
Webb pointed in particular to the weekly Shabbat dinners held at the Chabad House; its regular classes in Talmud, Torah, Jewish history, and Jewish philosophy; its High Holy Day services; and its support of Banot, the Jewish women’s social network recently initiated by his wife, Gitty. He estimated that Chabad, affiliated with the hasidic outreach movement also known as Lubavitch, reaches some 200 of the estimated 600 Jewish students among the university’s 4,700 undergraduates.
In particular, Webb pointed to Shabbat 360, together with Shabbat 300, a prior collaborative effort, as “a tremendous feat for Princeton.”
“So it was obvious to everybody that there were cooperative efforts going on,” he said. “The exposure to Jewish life is a benefit for everybody. Chabad is a significant, positive force on campus.”
Tilghman was unavailable to comment on the matter, but Boden, in a phone interview, stressed the evolving nature of the process that led to the university’s recognition of Webb as an affiliated chaplain.
‘Chabad is a significant, positive force on campus.’
“It’s been a trajectory rather than a turnaround,” said Boden, who is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “The big criterion throughout was the welfare of the Jewish students…and over the course of the year we just heard more and more students say that Chabad and the Center for Jewish Life were complementary.
“The question was: Would having a second Jewish organization contribute positively to the quality of life for Jewish students? And that was answered in the positive this year,” she said. “Now, we will have more options for our diverse Jewish community to find ways to be connected.”
Marni Blitz, assistant director of the CJL, applauded the university’s recognition of Chabad.
“I think we have a very strong relationship. We work together on a number of large projects and we really work together to build a vibrant Jewish community on campus,” Blitz said in a phone interview.
Blitz added that the Webbs have been very accommodating and welcoming to the CJL’s staff and students.
“I’d like to stress that we’ve had a very positive relationship and we’ve had, together, a very strong impact on the lives of Jewish students on campus and on the image of the Jewish community,” she said. “I think we’ve created a very comfortable atmosphere for all Jewish students to choose how they would like to explore their religious identity.”
Princeton junior Hilana Lewkowitz-Shpuntoff of Great Neck, NY, is active in both institutions. She serves as secretary of the CJL student board, and she participates in the Sinai Scholars Society at Chabad on Campus, a program of Jewish study and social activities.
“I am extremely happy that the university decided to grant Rabbi Webb chaplaincy,” Lewkowitz-Shpuntoff wrote in an email from Beijing, China, where she is studying Mandarin at Beijing Normal University under Princeton’s language immersion program there.
“I do not see the two organizations as competitors,” she wrote. “I hope that the two organizations will be able to work together to enhance Jewish life on campus.”
Josh Rodman of Potomac, Md., president of Chabad’s student board, predicted that Webb’s appointment as a chaplain at Princeton would increase cooperative programming between Chabad and the CJL and benefit the entire Jewish community at the university.
“It will expand the options of the Jewish community…and it will expand the amount of programming Jewish students can be aware of,” he said.
Rabbi Dovid Dubov, executive director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greater Mercer County, which counts Chabad on Campus as one of its seven branches, said he is proud that both Webb and Rabbi Akiva “Kivi” Greenbaum, director of Chabad at TCNJ at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township, have now achieved chaplaincy status at their respective schools.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing,” Dubov said in a phone interview. “It’s wonderful. I’m sure it will only help them with their outreach in building Jewish identity with the Jewish students on campus.”