Avery Rosin, 19, came with friends to a Sabbath dinner at the University of Pennsylvania and left with new ones.

Rosin, a member of the student leadership at the campus Chabad House, said that several people came up to him at the 90-person Chanukah event wanting to know how to get more involved. And although the dinner was far short of the campus’ largest – every year, the Lubavitch House at Penn’s Jewish Heritage Programs coordinates 80 dinners at locations across campus as part of its Shabbat 2000 event – Rosin noted that it encapsulated the power of an inspiring Friday night meal to make students feel at home.

“It was enjoyable and welcoming,” he explained. “And I think a lot of people got that. Every seat was taken; they even had to pull up some chairs.”

All across North America, attendees and organizers of similar events – from Binghamton University in New York, where in 1994, the local Chabad House came up with the concept of massive Shabbat dinners as rallying points of Jewish pride, to locations on the West Coast – report the same thing. Larger groups, they say, needn’t sacrifice the intimate feelings generated by smaller dinners. They instead have advantages of their own.

“Having a little bit larger event makes it feel like you could go and not stay as long, try it and hang out with the people who are involved,” offered Rosin.

Each year, roughly 20 campuses served by Chabad Houses host such events. At Penn, sophomore Lauren Gibli, 19, said she appreciated the opportunity to connect with peers. She brought seven friends to last month’s dinner.

“The message of this dinner, at least for me, was letting each participant realize the extent of the network they have on campus,” she said. “It was really a dinner where we built relationships across students who didn’t know each other before.”

Dinners around holiday times often draw big crowds, said the Chabad House’s associate director, Nechama Haskelevich. She and her husband, Rabbi Levi Haskelevich, typically hold such dinners in a larger space on campus; they also host a graduate student dinner during the second semester that brings in crowds of between 300 and 350 people.

Big meals create a certain buzz, she said. “We get to meet more people, new people. We also try our best to speak to and have a meaningful conversation with everyone.”

University of Pennsylvania sophomore Lauren Gibli, right, helped organize a large Shabbat dinner at her Ivy League school.
University of Pennsylvania sophomore Lauren Gibli, right, helped organize a large Shabbat dinner at her Ivy League school.

Bigger and Better

At the University of Southern California, where the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center annually runs a Shabbat 500 program, Rabbi Dov Wagner said such events help invigorate Jewish life.

Before the first big dinner, “Jewish life was a little muted here,” explained Wagner. “A lot of people felt there were a lot of Jewish students, but that they were the only Jews here.”

Then some students decided to import the massive Shabbat idea from other campuses.

“We called it Shabbat 300 the first year and tried to reach out to some of the predominantly Jewish Greek houses, Hillel, and other elements on campus,” detailed Wagner.

The first USC event netted well over 200 students.

“The next year we did Shabbat 500,” said the rabbi, “and we’ve done Shabbat 500 three times since. That really gives a very big boost to Jewish students, to feel like they’re part of something meaningful, something big, something to be proud of.”

Bracha Plotkin, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Student Center serving the State University of New York at New Paltz, said that students have been the primary force behind upping their big Shabbat’s annual attendance goal. Called Shabbat 118, the dinner last November drew 130 students.

“That’s a very large group in general,” said Plotkin, “and probably the biggest group of Jews ever getting together in New Paltz.”

“When they come and they experience a Shabbat dinner and they see it’s all students like themselves, they’ll come to more programs during the year,” she added.

New Paltz student Natalie Felsenfeld, 19, said she enjoyed helping plan the Shabbat 118 event.

“When people are actually noticing, you say, ‘I’m glad I put the effort in. It makes it all worthwhile.’ ”