Thanks to a dedicated group of undergraduate students, and the alacrity and hard work of newly appointed Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Yudi and Rivky Steiner, change in the nation’s capital this year has not been restricted to politics.
After a grand Sukkot celebration last fall that drew more than 300 students and ushered in the establishment of The George Washington University’s first permanent Chabad center, hundreds more have attended dozens of classes and holiday programs. The campus’ Greek system has gotten involved – both the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority and Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity joined the Jewish Students Association in sponsoring the Sukkot event – as has the local chapter of Hillel, which along with the Chabad center and American Friends of Lubavitch, co-sponsored a Feb. 17 address by Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor that filled a GW auditorium.
“People respond to the spirit of Chabad,” said Leonardo Nourafchan, an Internatinonal Affairs undergraduate and board member of the L’chaim Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Group at the university. “It isn’t dry. At Shabbat, there’s constant singing at the meals, there’s learning, there’s amazing discussions. Students get into it.”
A project of American Friends of Lubavitch in Washington, the GW center came as an outgrowth of activities Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the organization’s director, has been running for 15 years. According to Shemtov, the “increasing enthusiasm among students provided a clear indication that an expanded operation on campus was necessary.”
With a campus that practically abuts the White House lawn, and a student body that includes Congressional interns and more than a few of the women and men who will one day help shape U.S. policy on everything from health care to foreign affairs, GW has long been part of a certain epicenter in American life.
The campus Hillel offers a variety of social activities and until recently had run a kosher meal plan, but before the arrival of the Steiners, only Friday-evening services were organized on campus. Students regularly made the walk from the Foggy Bottom campus to the Lubavitch Center near Dupont Circle – which has been used to entertain foreign dignitaries and government officials – but many yearned for a Chabad center that was just for students.
“The long walk made it difficult,” Nourafchan said of the Shabbat gatherings with Shemtov. “It just doesn’t feel as accessible. Still, we had a core group that were very dedicated, and others who would join us as at different times and were interested in doing more, but it was difficult logistically.”
Over the years, said Shemtov, students became increasingly involved and expressed a growing desire for more Jewish opportunities.
“The uniqueness of The George Washington University required that we find a couple with a multitude of talents,” stated Shemtov. “Rabbi Yudi and Rivky Steiner have years of experience in running large scale programs. At the same time, their special ability to connect with people on an individual basis is phenomenal.”
Students celebrate Purim with Rabbi Yudi and Rivky Steiner at the Lubavitch Center in Washington.
When they first came to Washington to help American Friends of Lubavitch run a weekend program for about 60 Jewish students at the beginning of the fall semester, the Steiners were impressed with what they found.
The students “were what made us want to come. It was both quantity and quality,” said Yudi Steiner.
“There is so much that the students want to learn, and they want to reach out and involve other students on campus,” echoed Rivky Steiner.
Sophomore Natalie Lazaroff raved about the programming, particularly its Rosh Chodesh women’s group. The club meets at the beginning of every Hebrew month and explores pertinent spiritual themes illustrated by a group activity. A recent spa night focused on a Jewish woman’s inner beauty.
“Every month, it’s different,” said Lazaroff, who is majoring in American Studies and Judaic Studies and serves as the Chabad student group’s vice president. “We’ve had jewelry making and sushi making. Before Chanukah, we made sufganiyot,” the traditional fried doughnuts eaten at holiday parties.
“They’ve been on campus for only a few months,” Lazaroff said of the Steiners, “but they’ve had a huge impact.”
Said another undergraduate: The new Chabad House has “really added to the sense of unity among Jews here. Chabad’s approach of just accepting and caring about every Jew, no matter what their outlook, really touches people.”