Chabad of Stockton University Is Making This South Jersey Campus Very “Jewish User-Friendly”

Jul 13, 2017 by

When David Vaknin of Fair Lawn came to Stockton University in 2016, he knew he had chosen the school because of its well reputed finance department and its beautiful rural location on 1,600 acres in Galloway Township, the heart of the NJ Pine Barrens, just minutes from Atlantic City and other South Jersey beach towns. The school also had a good varsity soccer team (on which he plays), and he hoped these benefits would outweigh the fact that there was very little Jewish life to speak of on campus beyond a well-rated Department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a Hillel Club.

Little did he know that, by his first spring semester, all that would change. In early 2016, Rabbi Meir Rapoport opened the school’s Chabad organization on campus, and Jewish life at Stockton will never be the same.

At first, Stockton’s Chabad was merely a club, and, in January of 2017, Mr. Vaknin, who was raised in an observant-Sephardic home, was elected president. Now Chabad of Stockton University boasts its own home, a more than 7,000-square-foot building that sits on 2.7 acres of land.

Large Enough to Suit Its Purpose

The new Chabad Center, which doubles as the family home for Rabbi Rapoport, his wife, Shaina, and their baby son, Mendel, was the former residence-and-office of an area attorney who recently retired. The building features classrooms, social spaces with sufficient room for traditional Chassidic farbrengen, a kitchen and dining room to offer kosher meals to students and faculty, and plenty of bedrooms to allow students who wish to observe Jewish law to spend Shabbat and holidays with the Rapoports. Last Pesach, the Chabad House was inundated with students and faculty members who joined the Rapoports for sedarim and services and some of whom enjoyed Chabad’s free kosher l’Pesach meal-plan.

“When young Jewish students arrive on campus, more often than not, they find themselves in a fairly hostile environment, especially when it comes to Jewish values, and this can be very uncomfortable whether the students come from homes that were steeped in Judaism or if there was little or no Judaism at home. At the Chabad House, we give them a place to connect with other Jewish students on multiple levels. They can enjoy home-made kosher meals and, over food, the chance to talk about Judaism. The Chabad House is where they can come to understand what it means to be a Jew,” says Rabbi Rapoport.

While there are activities all week long at the Chabad House, ranging from cooking classes with Rebbetzin Rapoport to programs explaining the existential threat to Israel posed by a Palestinian state, the mainstay of the week’s agenda is Shabbat, from Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat and dinners to meaningful musical Havdalahs followed by lively Melaveh Malkas.

The new Chabad center at Stockton joins the list of 56 Chabad centers in the state of New Jersey under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Herson.

The Catalyst

Amy Greenberg, a Stockton junior who comes from Westport, Connecticut, and has lived on campus since her freshman year, is a founding member of Chabad. The primary-education major chose Stockton in large part because her grandparents reside in Margate, a heavily Jewish community just south of Atlantic City, and, in fact, her grandmother had attended Stockton.

“Before Chabad came to Stockton, I was not pleased at all with Jewish life on campus,” says Ms. Greenberg.

For her, the timing was perfect. Chabad’s arrival coincided with her burgeoning interest in becoming more observant, and Chabad, she says, was the catalyst.

“Because of Chabad, it’s easier now to keep kosher at Stockton,” she says, adding that it has been a “pleasure to see Chabad rapidly grow larger and attract an ever-increasing number of Jewish students.”

“I love Rabbi and Rebbetzin Rapoport. They are so sweet and caring. Anytime I need anything, I can call or text them, and they’ll help me,” she says.

1,000 Jews

Rabbi Rapoport says he realized how important having a Chabad House on campus is when he learned more about the school’s demographic statistics. Of Stockton’s student body of almost 9,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students, close to 10 percent may be Jewish.

Rabbi Rapoport believes there may be 1,000 Jews on campus.

“Many of our students grew up in environments in which they were not very connected to Judaism. Some of them were unaffiliated; some don’t even know that they’re Jewish until we meet them and talk to them. Then they discover that, because their mothers are Jewish, that makes them Jewish, too. That gives them the opportunity to grow, regroup, and recharge,” he says.

A Place to Spend the Holidays

Elana Berlin originally attended Arcadia University, located outside Philadelphia, which is near her family’s home in Cherry Hill. She transferred to Stockton last year as a junior to pursue the school’s program in Environmental Science.

Interested in finding a way to become more involved in Jewish life, she discovered the Chabad House while walking around the campus shortly after arriving. Rabbi Rapoport had set up a table so that Jewish students might see that there was now a place for them to learn more about their heritage.

“The timing was perfect. I didn’t think I’d be able to go home for Rosh Hashana, and, when I told him that, Rabbi Rapoport immediately invited me to spend the holiday with him and his wife. Now, I go there virtually every Shabbat. Sometimes, I feel like I’m always there. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Rapoport are just incredible,” she says.

Ms. Berlin, who recently assumed the position of Chabad’s student events’ coordinator, finds spending Shabbat and holidays at Chabad makes all of Stockton feel “more like home.”

“At Chabad, everyone is so friendly and accepting, and the food is always amazing. I’m learning so much about Judaism. It’s like charging me up,” she says.

Attracting More Jewish Students

Ms. Greenberg says the presence of Chabad on campus has not only made Stockton more “Jewish-friendly” for Jewish students already enrolled, but should make it more enticing for future Jewish students who may be considering Stockton.

“Stockton is now very user-friendly for Jewish students. Because of Chabad, we have a great community. All we need are more Jewish students to join us. I tell all my Jewish friends to take a look at Stockton,” she says.

Mr. Vaknin agrees. “Now that Chabad is officially ensconced at Stockton, Jewish students can take advantage of everything Stockton offers without sacrificing Jewish life, learning, and growth,” he says.

Visiting Israel

Rabbi Rapoport, who grew up in Ventnor, NJ, just down-beach from Atlantic City, was raised in a home devoted to Chabad-style Jewish outreach. His parents, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Shmuel Rapoport, were the founders of the Margate-based Chabad of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, which is, officially, the parent organization of Chabad at Stockton; and his older brother and sister-in-law, Rabbi Avrohom and Mashie Rapoport, are the heads of the Ventnor-based Chabad at the Shore.

Rabbi Meir Rapoport takes it as a personal achievement that so many of his Chabad students are taking advantage of the Taglit Birthright trip to Israel this summer. Some of them, such as Mr. Vaknin, have been to Israel before. Over the years, he has gone several times with his family as well as with NCSY.

For Ms. Greenberg and Ms. Berlin, who are also going to Israel with Birthright, this will be their first time in the Jewish state.

They know when they return to Stockton, they will be able to share their experiences with the Rapoports at the Chabad House.

Helping the Community

As much as the Rapoports delight in servicing the Stockton Jewish community, they relish the fact that their Chabad Center also serves as a focus of Jewish activity for visitors to the area as well as Jewish residents of rural Atlantic County who, before the Chabad House, had no place to explore their heritage or tradition.

“The students of Stockton University and the surrounding community have embraced us since the day we arrived,” says Mrs. Rapoport. “Not only is the Jewish community flourishing, but the Divine providence has been prominent every step of the way, culminating in the purchase of this beautiful property that was seemingly built exactly to serve the needs of a Chabad House.”

For more information about Jewish life at Stockton, Rabbi Rapoport can be reached at 609-674-8733. He says he is eager to introduce potential students to those, such as Mr. Vaknin, who are already taking advantage of what the Chabad House has to offer.

“During the week, we all have so many activities, and all of them require energy. At the end of the week, it is not unusual to feel drained. Then, we come to Chabad and have this amazing experience. It’s almost like plugging yourself in. You relax, you enjoy kosher food and conversation with everyone about Judaism. It recharges you, so you’re back up to 100 percent, and this cycle repeats itself each week,” says Mr. Vaknin.

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