In a sunlit room, pictures of Shabbat dinners and fond memories line the walls of Chabad at Purdue.
Purdue’s branch of the movement, run by Rabbi Avremel and Shaindy Gluck, has grown exponentially since it was established in 2019, providing a familiar place for Jewish students to practice their faith and find a community.
A Chabad is a Jewish community center, and hosts Shabbat meals and special events as well as “classes, lectures and workshops on Jewish topics,” according to Chabad.org. Chabad at Purdue is located at 444 Littleton St., providing a convenient place to gather for Purdue’s Jewish population.
After both growing up in religious families, Avremel and Gluck realized they wanted to be involved in Chabad and were told about the lack of one on Purdue’s campus by a family friend whose father runs a Chabad in Indianapolis. Avremel said every Chabad is run by a husband, a wife and their family.
“(They) told me about the university and we came down here, checked it out and we fell in love,” he said.
Chabad at Purdue is just one of over 200 Chabad branches on college campuses across the country, according to the organization’s website.
The organization started out with just one member, but word quickly spread about the new branch. The organization also partnered with Jewish fraternities like Alpha Epsilon Pi and hosted Shabbat dinners.
“We grew and grew organically,” Avremel said. “Our strong belief is that you don’t have to work hard to be a better Jew. You’re Jewish because that’s the way you were born and that’s it.”
Ben Cohen, a junior in the College of Engineering and member of AEPi, said Judaism has continually been a large part of his life. He attended Sunday school and had a bar mitzvah in seventh grade, but saw it as potentially being the “end of (his) Judaism” because of his decreased participation in the religion after the ceremony.
“Throughout high school, I joined a youth group because my friends did and that brought me back into Judaism and I sought it out on my own,” Cohen said. “So later in high school and now in college, it’s a way bigger part of my life.”
Cohen said he wasn’t interested in rushing a traditional fraternity, but because AEPi is a Jewish community on campus, he joined and became involved.
Purdue doesn’t have the reputation of having a large Jewish community, Avremel said, compared to other Big Ten schools. To some Jewish students who come to Purdue, the vibrant Jewish community is like a surprise.
“Regardless of if you’re looking for it or not, finding a Jewish community wherever you are, especially one that feels homey and relatable and like something you remember (is important),” Gluck said. “You don’t realize you’re gonna miss it until you come and you’re like, ‘Oh, there are other Jews here.’”
Cohen said it’s common to meet students who grew up without knowledge of Jewish practices.
“I find a lot of people on Purdue’s campus, they’re just very ignorant and have never met a Jewish person before,” he said. “Like in my (Boiler Gold Rush) group, I think it was at least two people who had never met a Jewish person in their life. And so again, at Purdue, it’s not that I don’t feel accepted, it’s just people have never really met a Jew before.
“Some people come into that with prejudices, whether it’s learned from family or something else, but it’s not necessarily a place of hate, it’s a place of ignorance.”
Avremel said he tells students to combat ignorance by seeing it “as a time to educate.”
“For this person, you know, they come from a small town in Indiana where there’s no Jews, and very often I’ll have a preconceived notion that (they) know about the Jewish people because the Jewish people aren’t actually people,” he said. “When they meet a Jew for the first time, we’ve had students that have been asked like, ‘Oh, you don’t have horns?’ And it wasn’t even meant in a hateful way. It was just that they didn’t know any better.”
Avremel and Gluck said coming from multicultural cities like New York and London respectively, holding conversations like that is “very foreign” to them. They look to inspire students to learn more about their Jewish culture so that when they have these conversations, they’re more educated and feel more comfortable informing others about Judaism.
“We get a lot of the questions that they normally wouldn’t ask, and then we can have a discussion,” he said. “There was one student that told me his grandfather is an anti-Semite. A few hours after meeting (and talking), he said now that he realizes his grandfather’s wrong and that Jews are just regular people.”
Conversations about potential antisemitism on Purdue’s campus have been heightened recently due to two incidents in February, when the Temple Israel in Lafayette received threatening phone calls and Purdue Hillel was the victim of vandalism which resulted in a broken window.
“(The Hillel vandalism) could actually be a malicious act,” Cohen said. “It’s hard for us to determine, because you’ll get stupid people on college campuses doing stupid things.”
Cohen said the community has been brought closer together by the incident, with individuals meeting up at Hillel the following morning to clean up broken glass.
“What’s big about it, at least for me and people I know personally, is that we don’t let this kind of event make us afraid,” he said. “A lot of us kind of see this event as an act of cowardice and it makes us even more driven to be proud and show that we’re Jewish.”