Lian Zucker, a sophomore and one of 2,000 Jewish students who attend Yale University, effuses praise for its Chabad House, a center of Jewish life that she describes as a home away from home.

“Coming into Yale, I definitely knew that I wanted to be involved in some facet of Jewish life on campus,” she says. “When I started going to Chabad, it felt like I was eating with my family. It felt like home.”

She doesn’t stop there, noting that its directors, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shua and Sarah Rosenstein, and their weekly Shabbat dinners, kosher cooking classes and lively soirees, definitely make the most of a modest 1,100-square foot space. The only drawback – one that the Rosensteins are hoping to fix – is its size.

“Rabbi and Sarah are just the best,” gushes Zucker, who was born in Israel, but grew up in Encino, an upscale suburb of Los Angeles. “They make me feel good about the Jew I am.”

Jonathan Weiss, who attends weekly Shabbat services at Chabad, echoes Zucker’s enthusiasm.

“Rabbi Rosenstein has real interest in your life,” says the graduate student, who is working toward a Masters degree in public health. “He’s interested in making it whole and meaningful, and I think that’s unusual. He’s been able to build something sustainable despite the fact that faces change and people move on and graduate. He has built something that doesn’t lose its appeal, because his interest is real, his involvement is real, and that’s hard to do.”

To accommodate the increasing numbers that flock to the popular, but much-too-small Chabad House – 80 students and faculty can be found there for dinner on any given Friday night – the Rosensteins, along with supportive Yale alumni, parents and friends, have launched a five-year, $6 million capital campaign to raise the necessary funds for an unprecedented expansion project and renovation of a newly purchased property.

This Chanukah, Chabad at Yale organized alumni events in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles to raise awareness about the launch of the campaign.

Students chill at a Chanukah party at Yale’s Chabad House.
Students chill at a Chanukah party at Yale’s Chabad House.

Eight Times the Size

“When we’re finished converting it, it’s going to be eight times the size of what we currently have,” Shua Rosenstein says of the 8,500-square-foot fraternity house that was bought in September and will replace the Chabad House’s current headquarters. “Our main goal is to maintain the same level of intimacy as in our old space, while comfortably encompassing many more people. That’s a challenge architecturally.”

But challenges are nothing new for the rabbi and his wife.

In 2002, when he and study partner Rabbi Nachman Abend founded what would later become the Chabad House – Abend has since relocated to Chabad of North Hollywood in California – students gathered in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in an off-campus New Haven building.

“It was not an exclusive atmosphere, but it was very warm and homey,” Rosenstein recalls. “Our goal was to reach out to all the unaffiliated Jews and to bring them in, and that became the community we attracted. Very quickly, it created a buzz on campus. Within a semester, we were having between 30 and 40 students for dinner. It became a very big thing.”

In September 2004, Chabad of Yale moved to its current location.

“When I was at Yale, we didn’t have anything like this,” remembers Brad Berger, who graduated in 1977 and serves on the expansion project’s advisory board.

“Chabad meets an increasing need today among people looking for meaning, connection and community,” adds Berger, who recently hosted a fundraising event in his Beverly Hills, Calif., home. “This expansion is another way to meet what we see as a growing demand.”

The new digs will enable the Chabad House to kick-start more classes and coordinate bigger events. There will even be more elbow room at the Shabbat dinner table, but maybe not for long.

“Chabad is a presence at Yale far beyond its tiny and cramped Chabad House,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse, the Joseph Goldstein Senior Fellow at Yale Law School. “At holiday meals and Shabbat dinners, my husband and I, as faculty members, have been among the oldest people in the room. But we have been enveloped by the warmth of the welcome from Rabbi Shua and Sarah Rosenstein, and by the spiritual bond among the students who are drawn to this somewhat improbable home away from home.”