New York will swell by nearly a thousand people this week—a thousand young people, all there for the same reason: to learn, to laugh, to meet, to eat, to sing, sight-see and soak in the riches that Judaism has to offer.
Students from colleges around the country and across the Atlantic will converge on the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn for a three-day Shabbaton from Oct. 25-27, run by Chabad on Campus International Foundation. The annual event offers a full-fledged program of educational, spiritual, social and entertainment-oriented activities for young adults.
“The Shabbaton is a fully immersive experience where students are engaged intellectually, stirred emotionally and uplifted spiritually. Even though there are students from hundreds of colleges throughout the world, we are all one community. We are all one family,” says Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International Foundation. “And while the Shabbaton only lasts a few days in time, the friendships created and the strengthened connection to one’s Judaism will hopefully last a lifetime.”
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Hurricane Sandy, which last October caused parts of the Eastern seaboard to evacuate, still didn't manage to keep students away in 2012. Fortunately, the weather forecast this year looks typically autumn-like, conducive for outdoor activities such as the Friday-morning tour of New York City, the Jewish Discovery walking tour and a Sunday visit to the Ohel in Queens, where the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, is interred, along with his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, of righteous memory.
What began as smaller regional programs about 11 years ago has blossomed into an international constituency of attendees starting in 2008.
One group coming from abroad this year will be led by Rabbi Levi Mimoun of Beth Loubavitch of Sceaux, in the southern suburbs of Paris, France. He will be traveling with 18 students to the Shabbaton.
Drexel University senior Noah Gross (second row, third from left, at last year's opening address) will attend the Shabbaton for the third time and paid the registration fees for six other students to go as well.
“This is the most important part of my shlichus—to bring students” to the Rebbe’s community, to Chabad’s longtime headquarters, he writes from France, and encourage them to meet other students connected to Chabad. “I hope that they leave New York with a new” inclination towards Judaism “and become more connected to their Chabad on Campus.”
Rabbi Moshe C. Dubrowski, director of programming for Chabad on Campus International Foundation, explains that “beyond the New York City hype, the Shabbaton is an unparalleled opportunity for Jews from across North America and Europe to experience their shared bond. For so many, especially students from schools with small Jewish communities, this one weekend can be truly transformational for their Jewish pride and identity.”
‘Food for My Soul’
That sentiment has been confirmed whole-heartedly by students who return again and again.
One of them is Noah Gross, a fifth-year senior at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studied in Israel for a year after high school, then spent a year at Yeshiva University in New York before transferring. He has been active with Chabad on Campus since Rabbi Chaim and Moussia Goldstein first arrived in November 2010 to open Chabad Serving Drexel University-Rohr Jewish Student Center during Gross’s first year at school.
“It was so ripe for them to come and set up when they did—it was like a home run,” says the 23-year-old, who served as treasurer of the founding group of students for Chabad and then two years as president after its establishment, and is now “just a happy student at the university enjoying the Chabad House.”
This year he will participate in his third Shabbaton—and to mark that, he did something special. Gross used some of the funds he earned during internships to pay the registration fees of six other students: five at Drexel and one at the nearby University of the Arts.
“I didn’t want anyone to be held back because of money,” states the mechanical engineering major. “I’ve benefited by going, and by extension, the least I could do is help provide that experience for a few others.
Moshe Hecht will perform at the Saturday-night Havdalah ceremony, which is followed by the Mega Event.
“The Shabbaton has left a good mark on me. The programming is exceptional; it stays with me. It serves as food for my soul to keep Judaism thriving in my own life. It’s encouraging, reinvigorating … sharing something with all these other students from all these other universities, all with a common bond.”
In total, about 30 Drexel students are registered and headed to New York.
Jeff Resnick, a 21-year-old junior there, signed up after hearing for weeks about it from friends at Chabad who couldn’t stop talking about how fun it was.
“I view going to this Shabbaton as a chance to step back and relax from school. I’m in the middle of midterms now, so it's a pretty stressful time,” says the mechanical engineering major, who plans on taking a bus to New York with a group of people from Drexel. “From what I’ve heard, the speakers do a great job at relating Jewish concepts to our everyday college lives, and I’m excited to hear them.
“I am active with Chabad on Campus. Almost every week I’m there for Shabbat services, dinner and lunch,” he continues. “I try to involve Chabad with my activities in Alpha Epsilon Pi (a Jewish fraternity). I try to get to events during the week, like ‘Tanya & Lasagna’ or lunch-and-learns when my schedule permits. I previously traveled with Chabad on Campus on an alternative spring-break program to Warsaw and Odessa to help out with a Jewish orphanage, and I’m currently planning the next spring break to help out a few Jewish communities in Italy.”
Home Hospitality, Classes and More
Tracy Abraham is also attending for the first time.
A sophomore and communications major at the State University of New York at Oneonta, nearly four hours from Brooklyn, she is “looking for new things to see and do at college,” and says she is especially interested in one of the seminars about finding relationships.
The 19-year-old is active with her Chabad on Campus center—attending Shabbat dinners, holiday events and activities like game nights—and going to the Shabbaton with a group of students from school.
She’s even staying at the home of a relative of her Chabad on Campus rabbi, Meir Rubashkin.
In fact, students enjoy home hospitality by residing with families in Crown Heights for the duration of the Shabbaton. It’s part of the warmth and success of the program—being immersed in a neighborhood where Shabbat encompasses everything.
Add to that an array of classes and workshops led by a diverse group of educators—topped off by a Havdalah ceremony with singer Moshe Hecht, and a Saturday-night Mega Event, featuring “The Big Quiz Thing,” a live game show—and the program is complete.
Nearly 1,000 students from the United States and abroad are expected to participate in the annual Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton.
Sara Esther Crispe, a motivational speaker who lectures internationally and director of communications for Chabad on Campus International Foundation, will be one of the main presenters for a Friday-night open discussion with women, and lead another two talks during the day—one titled “Mind Control: The Power of Our Thought, Speech and Action” and the other “Transforming Darkness Into Light.”
She explains that “the goal is to make students recognize the transformative power in how they think, what they say and what they do to affect not only themselves, but those around them, and is the foundation for creating healthy, honest and successful relationships.”
Her words have a familiar ring to them for Marisa Finkelman, 19, who just entered the University of Texas at Austin. (She’s a sophomore by credits; she finished a gap-year program in Israel, the Young Judea Year Course.) After all, a few years ago, her older brother attended the Shabbaton and met a young woman there; the two are now engaged.
That might be a hard act to follow, but Finkelman, majoring in education and Jewish studies, is looking for other possibilities: “meeting new people, having a great experience in New York, learning about Judaism in new ways and just having an amazing weekend with the extended Jewish family.”
It’s her first year joining the program, and others from her school are also going, led by Rabbi Zev Johnson, director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Texas.
Working it into her schedule wasn’t difficult because “in the long term, I will appreciate spending my weekend in this way, instead of spending it like any other weekend. It’s worth the three- or four-hour flight because it’s likely to be an experience that I will carry with me for a very long time.”
She’s also looking forward to touring New York with others her age: “I have heard that visiting the Rebbe’s Ohel is an unparalleled experience, and I don’t know if or when I would ever have the opportunity to visit it another time if it weren’t for the Chabad on Campus Shabbaton. This is probably just one of many unique opportunities I will have.”
David Cleaner, 21, doesn’t doubt that at all. Also a student at the University of Texas at Austin, this will be the second time he’s participated; the first was two years ago, when he was a sophomore. He went with some of his AEPi fraternity brothers and met other AEPis there from other schools—making friends and memories was what he remembered most.
“Shabbatons mean great food, great people, singing and dancing, and making new friends while strengthening relationships with old ones,” lists the accounting major, now a senior and an officer at his university’s Chabad on Campus.
And he enjoyed getting to know his host family.
“I think that was my favorite ‘program’—if this could count as such,” he says. “Seeing how a Chabad family spends Shabbos and what they do during the week was very interesting. I love good conversation over good meals in such a homey atmosphere.”
While Cleaner can’t foresee what new experiences await him, he remains certain there will be enough to make even more memories: “I’m sure the topics we discuss in the programs and breakout sessions this year won’t be the same, and I will learn many new things.”
Noah Gross of Drexel can almost guarantee he will. “You can go to anything you want there; you choose topics that are meaningful to you. You’re doing this for yourself, and you’re doing it on your own. I hope it has a similar impact on others as it has had on me.”