As the slogan goes, Texas is like a whole other country. Where else, for instance, could you find the unique combination of old world tradition and southwestern heat that is Challapeño? (That’s challah made with jalepeño peppers.)
The concoction graces the Shabbat table of Rabbi Yossi and Manya Lazaroff – co-directors of the less-than year-old Chabad-Lubavitch of Brazos Valley in College Station, which serves students at Texas A&M University and nearby Blinn College in Bryan – on Friday nights. Apparently, the Tex-Mex loaf is a hit with students, who sign up ahead of time online in order the attend the weekly dinners.
“Personally, I am not the most religious Jew out there, but going to Chabad on Friday night for Shabbat really gets me motivated to go more and more,” offered Sheliza Rosenthal, a biomedical science major at A&M. “Not only is the food fabulous and reminds me of true homemade cooking, but a feeling of closeness comes about every week.
“The minute I walk into the Chabad House, I feel welcome, the kind of welcome where I know if I ever need anything or need to talk to someone I am allowed,” continued the Texas native. “Not being brought up religiously, I really do not know much about Judaism other than the basic principles. However, attending Chabad, I feel an opportunity to embrace the religion more deeply without being overwhelmed.”
According to Manya Lazaroff, between 25 and 40 students attend each Friday night gathering at the Chabad Jewish Student Center, which is funded in part by a generous grant from the Rohr Family Foundation. She said that she welcomes the opportunity to cater the meal, which for many students is their first exposure to a traditional Shabbat dinner. Because stores in College Station do not sell kosher meat or baked goods, the Lazaroffs must go to Austin or Houston for meat; she does the baking.
“I love cooking, and what better way to put your talents to work than having the opportunity to make Shabbat dinner for so many students?” she stated. “Sometimes students join me in making challah on Thursday night.”
With a smile, she adds that they “love when we have Challahpeño. I’d say it’s one of everyone’s favorites.”
Before the Lazaroffs arrived, Jewish Aggies did not have a regular Shabbat dinner and lunch program at the university. Now, besides Shabbat festivities, they have Pesach seders, Purim parties and on Tuesday night, will celebrate a giant menorah lighting.
“Chabad at Texas A&M University is truly a blessing,” said David Weiser, a biomedical science major and prior of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity on campus. “Rabbi Yossi and Manya create such a friendly and delightful atmosphere. Any student can just come into the Chabad house, schmooze, talk about life or just relax. I feel it is a nice getaway from school.”
Weiser asserted that the Chabad House has sparked a passion for Judaism in the Texas town.
“I also believe that students are understanding the religion better because of Chabad,” he said. “Every holiday, there is an event. Sure there is amazing food there, but there is also a message about the importance of Judaism in your everyday life.”
Faculty members likewise had warm words for the Lazaroffs.
“I’m delighted that Chabad is here and am looking forward to working with the Chabad Student Group as an advisor,” said English professor Jennifer Wollock.
To accommodate the growth in their activities, in October the Lazaroffs leased a 4,000 square-foot space next to their home one block from campus. The facility boasts 52 parking spaces and a student lounge with Wi-Fi Internet access and free printing.
“When we first came to A&M we operated out of our home, but with 40 students on a Friday night, there simply wasn’t any room,” said Yossi Lazaroff. “We are now able to host a lot more people than before and not worry about space issues.”
Since the Lazaroffs’ arrival, Michael Stoll has been going to Chabad every day to put on tefillin and recite the Shema.
“When I was in school in Houston, I remember how Rabbi Moishe Traxler of Chabad Outreach would come by with a matzah bakery and sukkah mobile, and that left a big impact on me,” said Stoll. “When I heard Chabad was coming to A&M, I was really excited. When the holiday of Sukkot came, I offered Rabbi Yossi to use my truck for a sukkah mobile here in College Station.”
“It was great!” added Weiser. “Rabbi Yossi drove around campus with a sukkah mobile; making sure students were getting their share of Sukkot.”