Located in the heart of Los Angeles, the University of Southern California is one of the world’s leading private institutions. Amid the strong tradition, extensive opportunity and a world-renown sports program, is a 125-year-old building now known as the Chabad Jewish Student Center.
Religio Magazine had the pleasure of sitting down with Rabbi Dov Wagner, who currently serves as the Executive Director at Chabad, as well as the campus Rabbi at USC. Here, Wagner shares with us an inside perspective of his role and beliefs.
Religio Magazine: What is a typical day in the life as a rabbi?
Rabbi Wagner: For me there really isn’t a typical day as a campus rabbi—to provide a clearer picture, there are generally a few aspects that I involve myself in: classes, answering questions, events, one-on-one interactions and the management of organizations and family life (7 kids). As a campus rabbi, there is less structure (compared to a community rabbi) and it’s a lot more informal and day-to-day. Also, here at the Chabad House we host Shabbat (Jewish day of rest) that occurs every Friday evening that consists of 80-100 students joining together for a meal.
RM: Is there a specific purpose why you went into being a campus rabbi instead of a more traditional one?
RW: I Initially went into it with the thought that it was going to be learning with people, not so much organizational and setting things up, [laughs] but I’ve come to love it. I really enjoy teaching and also enjoy one-on-one learning. I wasn’t initially aware of these circumstances and it does have unique challenges such as making decisions, creating ideas, examining big questions and personal growth. This role does play a much more formative role in life than a traditional rabbi and allows the establishment of ethics and morals as well.
RM: One of the first things people notice is appearance. How would you describe your attire and how it relates to your belief?
RW: Within Jewish tradition, some attire is mandated and some not so much. One of the most well-known pieces is called the Kippah (Yamaka). It’s a head covering and has traditional or rabbinical origins (after biblical times). This garment is primarily used by men to cover their heads as a reminder that there is something (God) is above us. Another significant piece is called the tzitzit, which is a four corner garment with fringes on it. This actually is Biblical and can be found in Deuteronomy and is worn in remembrance of the commandments God has given.
RM: As you spoke of learning and the vision for the campus, is there any specific goal/vision for the LA community?
RW: In modern times especially here in the university setting, people are very focused upon future career, earning potential, developing the knowledge it’ll take them to succeed in the material world and even social aspect. Another aspect that isn’t as strongly nurtured is the spirit. Who I am as a person—our spiritual identity, building a greater sense of purpose and value and helping others accomplish this. Here at the Chabad House, we are looking to (1) provide a home and structure to allow people to observe and (2) allow those who do not have belief to explore.
RM: Now that you’re an established rabbi, looking back, was this a pretty clear path?
Rabbi Wagner: I grew up in a religious family and because of this regardless of whether one is a rabbi or not, the learning process is the same. If one was to be an observant Jew, the only difference in that between a rabbi is that a rabbi simply does it professionally. I was actually originally a day-trader and tried different things here and there. I love to teach, love to interact with people and therefore was open to exploring this possibility and haven’t looked back.
RM: Is there anything that you’d like to make known for the community?
RW: That’s a big one—Jewish faith, Jewish tradition…there’s been many misconceptions. It’s important to me what Judaism focuses on, which is an interesting blend between faith and intellect [spiritual and material]—a very mystical religion on one hand—but translates into behavioral, into real world application…ideas and ultimately how we impact one another. One thing I’d say: Jewish traditions are built on a very deep foundation of study—intellectual process, philosophy and theology. Jewish culture that people often come across in Hollywood is very much the culture in the broadest sense—often very removed from what it actually is. As we recognize that Judaism as a religion is referred to as the people of the book. Throughout history, we’ve been people of the book…fundamentals of Judaism. I, myself, haven’t even scratched the surface in this regard. When one tries to break Judaism into sound bites, we’re often times missing the deeper flavor of the kind of back and forth and thousands of years of historical traditions that goes into an idea, a ritual, an understanding or ethical value.
RM: Is there a tangible step or way our readers can take in understanding judaism and other religions as a whole?
Rabbi Wagner: Take a moment to consider premises and see where they come from. For instance, when you have an idea of a different culture or religion, it’s easy to make assumptions. Especially now with the internet, the very belief that spans thousands of years, can be brought up within seconds. Even here, I’m one person, a representative, but surely not everything of the faith. It’s well worth the time to take a few moments to understand a little bit more about what that contrasting position is, even if we may end up continuing to disagree with it. At least in this way we’ll be a little bit more informed and understand why people might hold this belief and where the belief comes from rather than just make assumptions for ourselves.