Attendance at meals and events to surge even more during Hakhel year
By: Bruria Efune
The High Holidays are long over, and the sukkahs have come down. But if you wander into a Chabad on Campus on a Friday night, there’s a good chance you might still find them outdoors, now in a tent.
Rabbi Hershey and Chana Novack moved to St. Louis in 2002 to establish Chabad on Campus serving Washington University in St. Louis, or “Wash U.” They rapidly outgrew the dining room of their two-bedroom home and purchased a property right next to the campus, which they renovated to fit a dining room to seat 80, a small library and a space for services.
Today, the Novacks host an average of 180 students for a Shabbat meal every Friday night—and occasionally as many as 380.
“We were seating students in the basement, library and shul,” Chana Novack tells Chabad.org. “Just maximizing every square inch to fit 180 students in. For large events, such as the Passover seder, we would use campus spaces. The largest hall we could rent had space for 250, which was also not enough.”
Following Covid, the Friday-night meals were moved outside for health and safety reasons.
“Suddenly, we had space. We share a yard with the ZBT fraternity, and they generously allowed us to extend into their backyard and parking lot. We set up a large tent and invested in outdoor infrastructure, and now we fit in between 200 to 380 students for Shabbat meals each week,” reported Novak.
What started in response to a pandemic turned out to be a long-term solution, and now, well after most activities have returned indoors, the Shabbat meals continue outside.
The Chabad-on-Campus-in-tents phenomenon is becoming more widespread as the centers become an increasingly popular spot for Jewish students. More than 260 campuses worldwide have a permanent Chabad presence, more than 185 in North America. Of those, many emissary couples report using tents during peak seasons, and dozens regularly host Shabbat meals in the outdoor structures.
And as rapidly as attendance at Chabad on Campus means and events has grown in recent years, it is expected to accelerate even more this Hakhel year, where there is a special focus on Jewish gatherings of all kinds. Once every seven years, Jews would stream to Jerusalem before the holiday of Sukkot to unite in the Holy Temple and hear the Torah read by the king. In modern times, celebrations of Jewish unity and pride throughout the Hakhel year were encouraged by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. In addition to the millions who will be attending Hakhel celebrations throughout the year, tens of thousands are signing up to host their own Hakhel celebrations.
A Healthy Space to Rejuvenate
Chabad of Georgia Tech and State was founded in late 2011 by Rabbi Shlomo and Shifra Sharfstein, after a group of students petitioned Chabad headquarters for a center of their own. The Sharfsteins started off in a small rental home, with just ten students attending their Shabbat meals. The numbers slowly grew to 25, and when they moved into a building right next to the Georgia Tech campus seven years ago, attendance doubled, and pretty soon the 70-seat dining room was packed. The first Shabbat meal of September 2022 brought 120 guests.
“There wasn’t enough space,” Shifra Sharfstein describes a room so crowded that students were sitting on every available surface. “People left early to make room for newcomers, and it was upsetting to me that not everyone could just sit and enjoy. It wasn’t that amazing family vibe that we want to share.”
The next week, Chabad of Georgia Tech and State was ready with a tent in the yard and a comfortable space for everyone—something Sharfstein explained was deeply important to them.
“We have a special book that our students write notes in when they graduate,” she says. “So many students write about Friday night, that knowing that they had a place to go to was something that they looked forward to the entire week. It was their highlight of the week—a good, healthy space to rejuvenate with a good boost of friends, good food and inspiration.”
Shabbat meals are a cornerstone of Chabad on Campus life. At the University of Kansas, Rabbi Nechama and Zalman Tiechtel welcome 50 students on an average Friday night, which they can fit comfortably in the Chabad dining room. During the busy seasons, the meals move outdoors into tents with seats for up to 90 students at a time.
“Students are facing a lot of struggles on campus,” explains Rabbi Tiechtel. “A lot of mental-health issues, anxiety, a lot of stress, distractions, antisemitism, and this is their safe place. They come to Chabad to have a safe haven where they can feel comfortable being themselves.”
Daniel Wachsberg is a fifth-year student at the University of Kansas. He hails from Houston and is currently studying strategic communications with a minor in business. His biggest factor in choosing a college was the Jewish presence on campus. On his first day on campus, he and his parents went to the Chabad House.
“Rabbi Zalman instantly welcomed us in as if he had known us for forever, and made us feel like family. From that day on, I felt like Chabad was home and family.”
Wachsberg describes Jewish life with Chabad at University of Kansas as a home away from home. “Although you may not know each and every person, you will always be welcomed in with a warm embrace, whether that’s a hello, just checking in on how you’re doing, or anything else.”
Building a Home Away From Home
The Tiechtels insist that students aren’t looking for an institution to attend, and that the Chabad House isn’t one. “It’s informal, it’s heimish and welcoming; it’s holy, and always joyful and positive.”
The effort to create that informal “home away from home” for thousands of Jewish students is monumental. Each emissary couple works to shape genuine personal relationships with the students, and make sure they feel welcomed and wanted.
The Sharfsteins can name each of their 120 most frequent students, what they’re studying, and often what challenges they’ve been facing lately. They welcome every student at the door or Shabbat table and make sure to take the time to catch up. Shifra even keeps track of students’ favorite foods.
“When they walk in I can tell them, ‘Oh, I made this angel-hair pasta because I know you love it!’ or ‘I made that dip you like, just for you!’ I want them to know that we care and think about them just like our own children.”
It’s not just the emissary couple; the students also work to cultivate the Chabad home and family.
Jacob Sloman is a fourth-year Materials Science and Engineering student at Georgia Tech and student president at Chabad. Having been raised with a Jewish mother, Southern Baptist father, and mostly Christian or secular friends, Sloman was determined to change his priorities in college and embrace his Judaism more. He set his plan in action on day one.
“At the organization fair during my orientation session, I was walking around when I saw Rabbi Shlomo and Shifra at their table, and I immediately walked up to introduce myself. And I’ve been at Chabad ever since really.”
Shifra remembers meeting him: “While welcoming incoming students at a freshmen fair, I noticed one guy whose smile was wider than the rest; his vibe was so upbeat and warm. We immediately decided he needed to join our leadership team, and I have to say it was the best hunch I’ve ever had about someone.”
The leadership team is a diverse group of 35 students from all different backgrounds, ages and parts of campus. They each take on a small or large role and are empowered to be leaders in shaping the student life at Chabad. Three years after joining the leadership team, Sloman became student president. In his role, Sloman coordinates with other student board members, such as the Shabbat chair, holidays chair, and director of internal affairs at Georgia State. He provides resources, helps them brainstorm and collaborate, and leads discussion to see what the Jewish students need and are interested in. He also works on backend administration and organization with the rabbi.
Amid all the busy work that comes with being student president, Sloman still plays an active role in the family life of the Chabad student community. “I operate as one of a committee of ‘Soup-er Jews,’ a group that I formed to deliver soup and tea to sick students. So I also act as the resident jester, providing puns and jokes that many would file under ‘Dad humor.’
Through involvement in the home and family culture of Chabad, students form deep friendships with fellow Jews.