For many college students, Shabbat dinner is just a fond memory nine months of the year, but Shabbat at Chabad makes the weekly observance a celebration of Jewish life and culture.
With the school year winding down, Chabad on Georgia campuses recently held mass celebrations of Shabbat: 500 students each at Emory and the University of Georgia; 250 at Chabad Downtown, serving Georgia State and Georgia Tech; and 100 at Kennesaw State. Altogether, more than 1,350 college students gathered for home-style Shabbat campus dinners with Chabad.
Chabad typically is a place where college students can relax.
“It gives them a break from the college environment. It’s not a dorm room or a classroom,” said Rebbetzin Miriam Lipskier, wife of Rabbi Zalman Lipskier at Chabad at Emory. “One of the gifts of Shabbat is to unplug. We ask them to take the Shabbat challenge and turn off your phones and talk to people in front you. There’s no pressure, but we suggest to people to take themselves up on the challenge.”
Providing a space where students feel comfortable in a religious setting takes skill, and Lipskier said that mixing and mingling are among the most important components of events like Shabbat 500. Both Chabad at Emory and Chabad at UGA hosted matzah balls for students to schmooze, with the hope of forging relationships.
“There’s the social element. It’s the hosting, meeting people and making meaningful connections,” she said. “It’s beautiful when people tap into their own roots and connect with their community.”
Shabbat dinner at Chabad at Emory typically draws 150 to 200 students, including some who are not Jewish but attend while hanging out with their Jewish friends and enjoying what has a reputation for the best food on campus.
“Everyone is welcome as long as they know they’re coming for Shabbat dinner and there’s going to be singing in Hebrew and there will be prayers in Hebrew,” Lipskier said. “I’m fine with people learning about Jewish life.”
During holidays, the turnout rises to around 300 students, so Lipskier is an expert at planning large Shabbat dinners.
For Shabbat 500 she enlisted the network of the Jewish students.
“The logistics are larger than normal. We had 50 tables, each with one host. We had a law student table, med student table, and tables for different frats and sororities,” Lipskier said. “That’s how we expand the number.”
Students helped prepare the meal, set up tables and created the floral arrangements for each table. Lipskier depended on the students to volunteer with meal prep while she handled the technical aspects. Students even helped take care of her 6-month-old baby.
“It’s not a formal setting, but not a club or bar where you don’t remember who you met the next day,” Lipskier said. “Our objective is for Jews to meet other Jews.”
After a social hour, the dinner featured brisket, kugel, roasted chicken, rice and roasted vegetables. The dessert was sponsored by Ali’s Cookies, and eight students baked wookies, a cookie dessert available only at Chabad at Emory.
As they do every Shabbat, students stayed long after dinner to talk and sing, continuing until about 2 a.m.
The diversity in the Jewish community leads to great conversations, Lipskier said, but at Chabad labels don’t matter. What matters is that students are there.
“It’s important to reinforce they’re not just a nameless, faceless person; they have roots,” she said. “Being in the room with so many Jews helps them stay grounded and rooted.”
UGA has about 2,000 Jews among 36,000 students. The goal for Chabad at UGA is to connect the Jewish students on campus and create a sense of normality around Jewish culture, said its director, Rabbi Michoel Refson.
He and his wife, Chana, have hosted Shabbat 500 for seven years. The event is an opportunity for unity among kids who may feel like a minority at the University of Georgia.
“They take away a sense of pride,” Rabbi Refson said. “I always hear them say it was such a great feeling.”
It’s the same sense of pride that drives the Chabad center serving Georgia State and Georgia Tech, led by Rabbi Shlomo Sharfstein and his wife, Shifra. It is easy for Jewish students to get lost amid the general student body, but Shifra Sharfstein said that’s why Chabad is necessary.
“The exciting part is that we had a lot of new faces, and the highlight was the students seeing a bunch of familiar faces from campus, but they didn’t know they were Jewish,” she said about Shabbat 250.
It was the second mega-Shabbat for the Chabad house serving Tech and State. She said the first year was more of challenge to prove they could pull it off.
“Last year when we came up with the idea, we brought it to the student board. Most of them had the same reaction: They felt it was impossible,” Sharfstein said. “We got 25 hosts and worked really hard to introduce them to new people. People were shocked when we pulled it off. They were shocked there were that many Jewish students on campus.”
For Chabad at Kennesaw State, the first Chabad 100 was a historic event. The university has a growing Jewish population, and Chabad wants to enable Jewish students to have an authentic Jewish experience away from home, said Rabbi Zalman Charytan, the director.
“Historically, UGA and Emory have a larger Jewish population. The fact that there’s been so much growth in Jewish life at Kennesaw State is exciting,” Rabbi Charytan said. “This is the culmination of a great year for the growth at Kennesaw State, and Chabad felt it was the right time to bring a mega-Shabbat to Kennesaw State.”
Rabbi Charytan credited the student government president, Erick Mulicandov, for “putting his heart and soul into making the Shabbat 100 a reality.”
“They are so thrilled and excited they’re having their own mega-Shabbat,” the rabbi said. “The students want people to know there’s an active Jewish community on campus.”
Drawing Jewish students closer to Judaism is the mission for every Chabad house on any campus, and Rabbi Refson said it’s always done with openness and understanding.
“You know they do Jewish things a lot of the time because their parents wanted them to do it or made them do it,” he said. “At Chabad, they are forging their own Jewish experiences. It’s important that no matter their background or where they come from, we keep them Jewishly engaged.”