Tufts University was founded in 1852 to be a shining light on the hill – Medford, Mass.’s Walnut Hill, to be exact – and nestled on its New England campus stands the eternal flame that burns 24/7 at the Chabad House Jewish Student Center, where Rabbi Tzvi and Chanie Backman offer a home away from home for the university’s Jewish members.

Wednesday night, hundreds of them will gather at the center of campus as the folks at Jewish Jumbo, as the Chabad-Lubavitch center is affectionately known, celebrate the Festival of Lights by lighting a giant Chanukah menorah with the assistance of University President Lawrence Bacow.

“We will definitely be making noise,” says Tzvi Backman. “Every night we will be serving latkes and donuts, but the biggest splash will come when the Tufts band comes out and plays Chanukah songs you can hear all around the campus.

“We can’t prolong the revelry, because everyone has to go back and study, but it will be fun while it lasts,” he adds. “It’s finals week, so we’ll bless the lights, celebrate freedom and let off a little steam.”

The Bacows, who are Jewish, recently joined 60 students at Jewish Jumbo – the Chabad House’s name is a play on the university’s elephant mascot – for a Shabbat meal.

“Chanie and Tzvi Backman have created a wonderfully welcoming community for our students at Tufts,” says the president, “and I am looking forward to lighting the Chabad menorah as I have done in the past.”

For students and other attendees, one of the major draws of the event will be a sampling of handmade food that has made the Chabad House famous.

“Half the fun is in celebrating Chanukah with the community,” says Bacow, mirroring the impressions of dozens of other university presidents, chancellors and other administrators who will be participating in menorah lighting events at 150 campus Chabad Houses across the country. “The other half is in sharing in the traditional Chanukah treats, latkes and [fried doughnuts].”

The Backmans founded the Chabad House in 2002 and began with five students at ther Friday night meal. Eight years later, they have their own building, the Rohr Chabad Student Center; their Friday night meals have grown to approximately 60 guests, including faculty members.

“Three years ago,” says Backman, “President Bacow told us he would like to get acquainted, and of his own accord asked to join us for Shabbat. He couldn’t make it until this year, but for the last couple of years, he has done the menorah lighting with us.”

Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow, left, celebrates Chanukah with Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Tzvi Backman.
Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow, left, celebrates Chanukah with Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Tzvi Backman.

Alongside the menorah lighting, the Backmans are offering parents and friends of Tufts students the opportunity to send their loved one a Chanukah care package through the Chabad House. The hand-delivered parcel contains holiday paraphernalia, including a menorah with candles, a lighting guide, chocolate-covered coins and dreidels.

“We are dedicated to bringing Jewish warmth where it is most needed. For some this is a short-term interest-free loan; for others a kosher meal. For still others, we provide a Jewish social scene with no clubs, no cliques, no rushes or membership. If they’re Jewish, they belong,” says Chanie Backman. “And since we know how tough life can be at a college so far from home, we offer a sympathetic ear for those who need to pour their hearts out. We care for everyone who comes to us, because that’s really what Judaism is all about.”

Ben Perlstein, a student at Tufts, describes how he was a proud Jew, though not necessarily observant. When he came to the school, he was seeking an intense Jewish community to support him.

“Tzvi and Chanie are so warm and welcoming. Before I came to Tufts, I spent a year on program in Israel and in 10 other countries. It was an intense Jewish experience and I wondered if I would be able to recreate that at the college I was going to attend,” says Perlstein. “There’s [Jewish organizations] on campus, but at the Chabad House it’s different. The Backmans invite you into their home and to take ownership of your own Judaism, whatever it is, without being judgmental.

“They showed me how you can keep kosher anywhere in the world, with an amazing Passover in Medford, hardly a Jewish town,” he adds. “They are really special people and we really love them a lot, because they make us feel that we are their extended family. That’s all due to their magical energy and the way they really love the students and how they work on our behalf.”

Vivian Haime, a senior, has been at the Chabad House since her freshman year.

“As a senior looking back, Chabad at Tufts has been one of the most formative elements of my college experience,” she relates. “Rabbi Tzvi and Chanie have grown to be my mentors, my family, and friends. There’s nothing like walking into the house of the president of your university and seeing mezuzahs on every door, or sharing Shabbat dinner with him and his wife, or watching him climb the ladder to light the menorah on the first night of Chanukah.

“It makes me feel proud to be Jewish,” stresses Haime. “It’s been a privilege to have the Bacows at Tufts throughout my college career, teaching us how to be good individuals and good Jews, and leading by example.”