A flurry of Chabad House openings stretching from the Ohio River valley to the East Coast is bringing a burst of Jewish life and learning to campuses and communities.

Over the past six months, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries have moved to Oberlin College in Ohio, Altoona, Pa., Lafayette Hill, Pa., and downtown Philadelphia. And earlier in the year, Rabbi Yisroel and Esther Simon opened the Chabad Student Centre of Kingston serving Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Uniting each location is a dedication to Jewish residents of all stripes and backgrounds.

For Rabbi Shlomo and Devorah Elkan, who have spent only a few weeks in their new Oberlin home, the move has been invigorating. On any given Friday night, they host between six and 10 students from the university, a private liberal arts school known for its oldest-in-the-country music conservatory.

“I’ve met many students through Facebook, and many identify themselves to me when they see me,” says Shlomo Elkan, who moved in September. “They’ll come over and ask questions.”

Located 35 miles southwest of Cleveland, Oberlin has about 3,000 students. The Elkans, who want to hold a public menorah lighting each night of Chanukah in two weeks, estimates that nearly a third of the student body is Jewish.

Eastward in Altoona, Rabbi Yossi and Chanale Stein serve the city’s 200 Jewish families with monthly Friday night gatherings and holiday activities. They arrived in July.

Chanale Stein, whose husband discovered the once-booming industrial town during his commute as a Pittsburgh-based chaplain serving more than a dozen prisons in the area, says that the public embraces their no-holds-barred approach to strengthening Jewish life.

“The general feeling among people is that they’re looking forward to the added activities and Jewish education to enhance what is already here,” says Stein, who teaches at the Hebrew school run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Altoona.

Federation director Bill Wallen is thrilled with the new programming. He points to such activities as an upcoming Chanukah-themed olive press as ways to get younger Jews involved.

“Some of these are things we’ve never done before,” explains Wallen. “These activities really go beyond anything we’ve been able to do before. Anything like this really has value.”

Rabbi Yossi Stein learns with a Jewish community member in Altoona, Pa.
Rabbi Yossi Stein learns with a Jewish community member in Altoona, Pa.

The Long Run

At the far eastern end of the state sits Philadelphia, where two new Chabad Houses are just getting started. Downtown, Rabbi Daniel and Reuvena Leah Grodnitzky are running programs for students at a cluster of art schools, while in the northwestern suburbs, Rabbi Yisroel and Chaya Kotlarsky are setting up shop in the upscale community of Lafayette Hill.

According to Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, executive director of the Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania, the addition of the Grodnitzkys – both Oberlin College graduates – to the city’s Jewish scene is a needed development for art students.

“There was no Jewish programming yet for them, not even a student center,” says Schmidt, who also runs the Old City Jewish Art Center.

The Grodnitzkys are looking to a juried competition at the Art Center over Chanukah as a way to unite students from a variety of schools.

“Each school has a different program and they really don’t interact, so we’re hoping to create a space that connects them,” says Reuvena Leah Grodnitzky. “They already have a shared interest in art, and now, they can connect because of a shared heritage. We want to provide them with as many opportunities as possible to explore their Judaism.”

Rabbi Shlomo and Devorah Elkan and their children are still getting used to their new surroundings in Oberlin, Ohio.
Rabbi Shlomo and Devorah Elkan and their children are still getting used to their new surroundings in Oberlin, Ohio.

Paul Zilberman says that he had heard about a new rabbi on campus, but didn’t know where to find him. So when Daniel Grodnitzky approached him on the street the month before Rosh Hashanah and offered him a chance to blow a ram’s horn, he was a taken aback.

“He said it was Divine Providence,” relates Zilberman, a sophomore at the University of the Arts who now learns Torah with the rabbi once a week. “It really was the most amazing thing.

“The whole family is just so loving and wonderful,” he adds. “I just feel very comfortable around them, and we could definitely use a Jewish club on campus so we can expand Jewish identity.”

Over in Lafayette Hill, where he’s still unpacking his new house, Yisroel Kotlarsky says that he and his wife are there to stay.

“I want every Jew that wants a chance to learn or get closer to his or her heritage has that opportunity,” says the rabbi. “G‑d willing, we’ll be here for the long run.”