Know,” says Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, “that a person walks in life on a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.” To me, that aphorism perfectly describes my situation as the Chabad rabbi at Stanford University. Below the bridge are the deep waters of secularization. Behind me is the safety of the Jewish community. The way is narrow and the risks are great, but I cannot decline the challenge. Judaism calls on us to take responsibility not only for our own family, but also for the Jewish people and the world around us.
Twelve years ago, my wife, Rachel, and I established the Rohr Chabad House at Stanford. Our vision was to open the doors of Judaism to students and faculty, and to give them access to the depth and majesty of their heritage. Since then, Stanford Chabad has grown into a dynamic campus presence, touching 1,200 students each year. Our Shabbat dinners have
become the largest single weekly Jewish event for the Stanford community, with an average of 60 to 95 students attending.
Like other Chabad houses, ours serves as our family’s home, with our private living quarters located on the second floor, perched immediately above the public space that the larger community passes through. There are weeks when Shabbat dinner continues well past midnight and, occasionally, we head off to sleep while the students are still schmoozing, singing, and celebrating downstairs. We drift off to their Shabbat melodies, knowing the students feel that this space is their home away from home.
For our five children — ages 13, 12, 10, 7, and 3 — having a house packed with students every week is just a way of life. On the rare occasions when students are on break, the children comment that it’s just not Shabbat without them.
The juggling act of maintaining a balance between family and students is challenging at times but always rewarding. For our oldest son and daughter, offering brief comments about the Torah during dinner gives them a special role to play. For the 10 year old, the tumult of the crowd affords him the opportunity to sneak an extra dessert undetected. For our 3 year old, dispensing prayer books for services and singing a Jewish song at the Shabbat table is a highlight of her week.
But it’s not always easy to raise children on a college campus that is a profoundly secular and sensual place: For example, I overheard a student lecturing our 12 year old about the glories of communism and how religion is the opium of the masses. I’ve heard warnings that opening our home to Jews who are not religious or committed to Judaism may diminish or put at risk the Jewishness of our children.
To this, our tradition provides a fascinating answer. While the Israelites were in the wilderness, Moses sent spies ahead to explore the Promised Land, instructing them: “Look at the cities and see if they are open or fortified.”
The spies returned and reported, “We saw extremely well-fortified cities.” They concluded that if the cities were strong, the people were strong. They were intimidated, and they felt that they could not take possession of the land.
It was a natural assumption, but the truth is precisely the opposite: When high walls for protection against invaders surround cities, it is a sign that the people are weak and afraid. It is when you see a city without walls that you know the residents are strong.
The episode of the spies is a powerful commentary on the experience of Jews in the modern age. There are those who argue that Judaism needs to build high walls in order to separate and insulate itself from society. But Judaism is strong enough to withstand any challenge. God wants us to live in the real world and to bring the divine presence into everyday life — to find God in the office, universities, fraternities, factories, and finance. This is exactly the challenge to which I am summoned: to be God’s partner in building a righteous world.
When Oliver Cromwell ruled England, the nation experienced a a crisis: It ran out of silver and it could not mint any new coins. Cromwell sent his soldiers to the cathedral to see if any silver was available. They reported back that the only silver was in the statues of the saints, to which Cromwell replied: “Let’s melt down the saints and get them back into circulation.”
That is what Judaism calls on us to do: to bring righteousness back into circulation through our acts, relationships, and social structures. Indeed, the aim of every mitzvah is to bring God’s presence into the world around us.
In our home, situated in an area of great secularization, we try to live this teaching every day. Though we walk on a narrow bridge, “the most important thing is not to be afraid.” Rather than withdraw from the outside world, we open our home to it. We do not covet privacy; rather, we open ourselves with love to the outside world, and in so doing, we — along with the Jewish students who visit us — are transformed. The stranger becomes a friend, and the flame of Judaism, far from dimming, grows stronger as we join together to bring new light to a world that desperately needs it.email print