Hasidic rabbi brings Jews closer to faith

by Phil Salinger | 10/22/04 5:00am

Every Friday night, anywhere between 10 and 20 students, mostly Jews, assemble in Rabbi Moshe Leib Gray's condominium for prayer, a home-cooked meal and lots of conversation about politics, religion and life.

Gray, a 25 year-old husband and father of one, runs the Dartmouth Chabad chapter, a Hasidic Jewish group that he helped organize on campus a little over a year ago. Unlike other forms of Judaism, the Chabad movement tries to recruit less observant Jews to its fold, and none of the students who Gray's attend services are Hasidic Jews.

That doesn't seem to bother Gray.

"My mission is every Jewish student," he said, "but I am committed to anybody who wants to be part of a conversation."

The Dartmouth Chabad is recognized by the Tucker Foundation as a student religious organization but is not funded by the College. Money for the chapter has come primarily from George Rohr, a New York City resident who has helped jumpstart many campus Chabad centers worldwide.

Gray dismisses the notion that Chabad exists in competition to Hillel, Dartmouth's other recognized Jewish organization. But some students said they choose to attend Gray's services because he offers them something they can't get elsewhere.

"It offers a more religious forum for students who need more structure in the way they express their faith," said one male freshman attending Gray's services Friday night He spoke on the condition of anonymity, not wanting to take a stand on an issue that he said has divided many in the campus Jewish community.

Gray came to Dartmouth from Yale University, where he spent a year at its Chabad chapter, the Chi Society. He jumped at the opportunity to run his own chapter at Dartmouth.

"It's such a good fit," Gray said. "Kids at Yale don't know how to have a good time."

Gray sees his primary role here as a teacher.

"I teach Judaism," he said, "from students who want to learn Hebrew, to Talmud, to Jewish mysticism and much more."

Last year the rabbi taught a popular weekly course on Judaism at Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, and he is looking to find another venue this year.

Paul Bozzello '04, who took the class, said he found it eye-opening.

"A discussion with him over a Torah passage gave me a wonderful glimpse into the way these texts have been analyzed and reanalyzed by Jewish scholars throughout time for their truest meaning," Bozzello said.

Gray frames his purpose as contributing to the long-term health of his religion by helping smart, ambitious students explore their beliefs.

His commitment to reaching out to students is clear. At one Friday night Shabbat dinner, Gray suggested that each person mention something that had happened this especially meaningful that had occurred over the past week.

One student discussed a riveting class he took on the Arab-Israeli conflict; an Israeli woman on vacation mentioned the amazing New England foliage; and perhaps the only non-Jewish student at the dinner that night expressed how relieved he was that he had not yet broken anything important or done anything else to offend everyone. Gray assured him, "You can get up, and say whatever you want at my table."

Gray credits his wife, Chani, who is expecting a second child in December, for helping him to provide a welcoming, homey atmosphere.

"She has a role just as important as my role," Gray said. "Her first priority is her children, and she is the one providing that home for the students."

Gray grew up in Seattle, where he was a star Little League shortstop until the age of 13, when he quit because games were held on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

The next year, his father sent him to study at the yeshiva in Los Angeles. He studied there for two years and then at the yeshiva in England for three years.

"I did not appreciate it at the time," Gray said of his father's decision to send him away, "but at 16 or 17, I started to appreciate it."

Gray said he came to Dartmouth with the goal of teaching students of all backgrounds and contributing to the future of Judaism through his relationships with promising young people.

"I really enjoy students," he said, "and I'm a rabbi for whoever wants me to be their rabbi."