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Students Get an Instant Shabbat in Vermont

Students Get an Instant Shabbat in Vermont

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The Wilhelm family staffs a Shabbat-to-Go table on Fridays for passing students.
The Wilhelm family staffs a Shabbat-to-Go table on Fridays for passing students.

Last semester, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Zalman Wilhelm and his wife Chani spent the minutes between 1 and 2 a.m. each Friday waiting for an unusual special delivery. Like clockwork, a visitor would emerge from the darkness at the home of the directors of the Chabad House at the University of Vermont, knock on the door and drop off a box of some challah rolls.

The mysterious early morning delivery is a quirky snapshot of the Shabbat-to-Go program, in which the Wilhelms assembled 80 Shabbat "care packages" and passed them out to students each Friday. The free kits included grape juice, a candle, a small snack and instructions on how to celebrate Shabbat; each package had a sticker on the outside telling students what time the sun would set that evening so that they could light the Shabbat candle at the proper time.

The fresh challah rolls, undoubtedly the star of the package, came all the way from a Boston bakery, dropped off by someone who would swing by each week on a regular trip from the Massachusetts capital to Canada.

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"You can't get those Challah rolls around here," says the rabbi. "You can't find them anywhere. Students would come up to the table, see them and immediately ask, 'Where did you get those?' "

The program, the brainchild of an anonymous donor whose child attends the university, models a similar program the donor began at a senior citizens home. But the donor and, of course, the Wilhelms were looking for an innovative way to remind students about Shabbat.

"Every Friday, we set up a table on campus at a central location," says Chani Wilhelm. "We would pass out these packages to remind students that Shabbat was that evening. Sometimes, the students were so involved with their schoolwork, they would forget which day it was. With the program, students could take the packages and have a little Shabbat with their friends."

The students, many stressed from studying all week, would breeze by the table. Glancing at the packages, they were immediately reminded that Shabbat was about to begin.

"When students passed the table, you could hear over and over again 'Oh, it's Friday,' and 'Oh yeah, tonight is Shabbat,'" says Zalman Wilhelm.

Understanding that some students might feel reluctant to engage in a discussion on Judaism out in the open, the Wilhelms made things as easy and unobtrusive as possible for students to take a package and leave, no questions asked.

"Some people may have been scared to come up to us," he says. "We would never even ask them their names. They could just take a package and keep on going."

Another aim of the program was to give students a little taste of home. Since so many of them were away from their families and their hometown Jewish communities, the packages were a small, important touch that seemed to go a long way.

A Tradition in the Making

"Many students came up and told us it was wonderful that we were doing this," the rabbi says. "We always included a snack, like an Israeli chocolate bar. One student told us that the package and the chocolate bar reminded him of living in Israel."

The Shabbat-to-Go initiative supplemented the weekly Shabbat meal at the Chabad House. In fact, according to Chani Wilhelm, some students would not take a package, saying instead that they were going to be at the Chabad House anyway.

On the whole, though, the response was so great that once the team made a ritual of the program, students saw them as a regular fixture. One student waited for the Friday packages even before the table was set up. Some students made a point of reserving their packages ahead of time.

"We were there every weekend," says Wilhelm. "The students really expected to see us there."

In Burlington, Vt.'s harsh winter months, the Wilhelms would still make a point of setting up their table: "On super cold days we bundled up and took along a portable heater," she says.

The effort even inspired at least one other student at a different college.

Erica Rosenthal, 20, of nearby Champlain College, used the program to pass along the packages to other Champlain students. Rosenthal, an early education major, first heard of the program at a Friday night Shabbat dinner.

"Shabbat-to-Go is nice because it is something to look forward to every Friday," she says. "It's a conversation piece. It reminds us in the school community that today is the Shabbat and we are going to rest."



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