Preparing to receive the Chesed (“Kindness”) Award from JProSTL—an association dedicated to supporting professionals working at Jewish organizations in the city of St. Louis—at its upcoming ninth annual recognition luncheon on Jan. 30, Chana Novack reflects on the work that has led up to this moment.
“My husband and I were recruited by Rabbi Yosef and Shiffy Landa, who are the regional directors of Chabad in Greater St. Louis, and tasked with developing Chabad’s presence in the student and young-adult communities, with a particular focus on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis,” she begins. They started their work there in 2002.
The 32-year-old is married to Rabbi Hershey Novack; together, they have four children. She grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., attending high school in Brooklyn and going to seminaries in Toronto, Canada; Israel; and New York. She and her husband, who is from Los Angeles, lived in Crown Heights for a year before relocating to St. Louis. She cites her experience as a peer mentor while at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem as having gotten her interested in Jewish life at the high school and college levels.
“We are very involved in developing meaningful Jewish experiences for the students. We also get to develop close relationships with them,” explains Novack. “This takes a lot of forms. The most significant program is the Shabbat dinners we offer, which are attended by more than 100 students every week. In the early days when we had first arrived here on campus, we were meeting and feeding about 25 students each week on Friday night, so you can see how we’ve grown.
“Washington University has a high percentage of Jews, and is a very welcoming school for Jewish students,” she continues. “It is known as a campus with a rich Jewish experience. Students can find [prayer] minyans, kosher food, an eruv [a ritual enclosure allowing Jews to carry items and push strollers on Shabbat and Jewish holidays], and of course, our Chabad House has a leadership role in many of these spheres.
“In the years since we have been here, the Jewish population has remained fairly consistent. But because of what’s now available, the numbers of observant Jews has grown. I believe this is because they’re looking for more than Jewish food,” she insists. They are looking “for a rich Jewish environment and a sense of Jewish community. Shabbat dinners become a springboard to forming all sorts of other Jewish experiences and relationships among the students.”
Honorees for the annual awards were chosen by a committee of JProStl leadership and former award recipients; they represent colleagues from across the entire spectrum of the St. Louis Jewish community. In addition to the Chesed Award for which Novack has been selected, other award categories include emerging leader, career achievement, mentor, support staff dedication, visionary, educator and pillar.
‘An Honor to Be Included’
According to Novack, the award is meaningful because it “is being given to me by my peers in Jewish communal service. To me, it’s wonderful that the St. Louis Jewish community recognizes the vital role that Chabad has in serving the Jewish students on campus. It is especially wonderful to be part of [a group that is comprised of] such accomplished other professionals. It’s an honor to be included in this group.”
Currently, Novack teaches—the most significant of her classes being “Wisdom From Sinai,” an eight-week course prepared by Sinai Scholars Society, a joint program of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation and the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. In the class are about 15 students, mostly from Hebrew-school backgrounds with little Jewish education past bar or bat mitzvah. The course uses the Ten Commandments as the framework to explore modern Jewish topics.
Chana Novack (front row, center right) with students on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.
Another highlight of her various contributions to students is participating in the free, 10-day Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, arranged by tour provider Mayanot. “Whenever I’m there in Israel with the student trips, I see graduates from the last 10 years—Washington University alumni who are now living, studying or visiting Israel—and that is also a highlight,” she says.
Reflecting on the exciting growth and progress in Jewish life she and her husband have helped foster in more than a decade now, Novack notes that she especially looks forward to the future: “I hope to continue developing more experiences—educationally, socially, spiritually—for students at Washington University.”