Rabbi Shlomo Elkan hadn’t heard of Oberlin College before heading there in 2010 to establish a Chabad House, which functions as a campus center for Jewish students. “Rural Ohio wasn’t on my radar,” the 34-year-old rabbi, who grew up in Atlanta and received his rabbinical training in New Jersey, tells me. But a third of students at Oberlin are Jewish, and the Corn Belt seemed a quiet place to raise a family. Little did he know.
The rabbi and his wife, Devora, quickly drew regular attendance to services at their small home, but Oberlin was boiling with political debate. It was a loop playing out on campuses across the country, under the banners of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The presumption around many quads was that to be Jewish meant you were part of the privileged, oppressor class.
“At first the questioning and conflict seemed natural. That’s what college is about, with kids seeking new identities, communities, even religious narratives,” says Rabbi Elkan, one of 200 Chabad rabbis posted at U.S. colleges. “But in the last several years we noticed hard lines forming around students to show their progressive stripes. That put many in the uncomfortable position of having to denounce Israel and their own Jewishness or stay silent when others did so.”
Early last year Oberlin rhetoric professor Joy Karega was exposed for promoting conspiracy theories and sharing anti-Semitic images on Facebook. Ms. Karega wrote that Islamic State is “a CIA and Mossad operation.” She also posted memes about Jews’ controlling the world’s banks, media and the U.S. government. These themes could have been ripped from “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
The Oberlin administration initially defended Ms. Karega, citing academic freedom. But it relented and fired her in November. Some accused the school of caving to Jewish alumni by ousting the popular African-American teacher. Amid the noise, a Jewish professor’s home was vandalized with references to ovens; numerous students transferred; and Oberlin landed 11th on a Jewish newspaper’s Worst Colleges for Jewish Students list.
Donors pulled back, including one who had pledged $350,000 to relocate Oberlin Chabad to a 6,000-square-foot campus residence. The unfinished property-the site of a former YMCA-sits in mid-repair, covered with construction wrap. “That one was tough,” Rabbi Elkan says, noting his current home has one bathroom to accommodate his six children, plus the dozens of students who pile in each Sabbath.
The rabbi bears no grudge toward Ms. Karega or her supporters: “I know she was a mentor to many students, which ratcheted up tensions over her dismissal.” But rather than retreating, he kept working to raise Chabad’s profile. “Our inclination is to rush the fire before it spreads. Once you strike a real relationship with someone, the screaming recedes and you can get past the political bullet points.”
Gailyn Gabriel can vouch for that. A leader of Oberlin’s black student group, Ms. Gabriel recounts how a portly stranger with a bushy beard engaged her and some friends following a lecture on tolerance last spring. “I’d seen him around and thought he was one of those aging hippies you encounter on campus. When he said he was a rabbi, I half-expected him to be wearing a bulletproof vest,” she says.
Over coffee, Rabbi Elkan shared stories about fearing for his safety in parts of Jerusalem. They discussed Ferguson and protest movements. “Rabbi Shlomo talked to us in a way that dialed down the distrust,” Ms. Gabriel says. I’d say we’ve become friends and I’m more aware now of how Jewish kids might perceive things as anti-Semitic.”
Melissa Landa, class of ’86, leads a group of former and current Obies who’ve petitioned the school to address ongoing hostility toward Jewish students and faculty. “From everything we know, the environment remains toxic for anyone who expresses support for Israel,” says Ms. Landa, the first to call out the Karega posts. She fears a new wave of animus will encourage fresh anti-Zionism and BDS demands.
Oberlin junior Cole Mantell isn’t as worried. After countless heated discussions about the Middle East, globalism and the Holocaust, he says he’s never felt remotely threatened. “That’s what you do here—argue with people,” he says. But he welcomes his weekly visits to Chabad “because it’s nonjudgmental and inclusive, and gives me my fix of being Jewish. Of course, when I tell my friends it’s a nonpolitical oasis, they say that’s a political statement.”
Rabbi Elkan nonetheless thinks his charm campaign has been working to build bridges and bring more students to sample Chabad’s joyous, spiritual style of Judaism. His surefire proof? “Well, I’ve noticed the line to our bathroom is getting longer. I take that as a positive sign.”
Mr. Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.