Two festive dinner parties with students, alumni and Jewish leaders ushered in celebrations marking a quarter-century of operations at Northwestern University’s Tannenbaum Chabad House.

First up was a Feb. 13 evening soirée in the university’s prestigious James Allen Center – home of the Kellogg School of Management – where 140 individuals gathered to pay tribute to the alumni and community philanthropists whose joint contributions in honor of the historic anniversary came to $130,000.

Among those supporters was alumna Jessica Raymond, a 2007 Northwestern graduate and student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, who holds a deep appreciation for the tireless work of the center’s director, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein.

“It was just a really great place to go Friday nights,” Raymond, who served on the Chabad student executive board during her junior year at college, fondly remembered. “Nothing was exclusive. Whoever wanted to come, no matter what their background, could show up for dinner. There was always good food, great drink. Everybody was welcome and that made it really special.”

Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of Lubavitch-Chabad of Illinois, delivered the gala’s opening remarks, followed by greetings from both Northwestern Dean of Students Burgwell Howard and Evanston, Ill., Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.

Menu highlights of the event included a smorgasbord of kosher Asian-themed cuisine, a bread bar and desert table, full-service pasta station, and a gourmet cappuccino machine. A video presentation showcased a montage of stand-out moments from the past 25 years at the Chabad House, and Asterik, the school’s all-male a cappella group, performed, as did Chuck Field, a well-known comedian and ventriloquist from the Chicago area.

Klein continued to pull out all the stops at a second fete held on Feb. 23. About 200 students attended the event, where partygoers munched on flavorful sushi while being treated to a performance by Marc Salem, world-renowned mentalist and creator of the hit Broadway show “Mind Games.”

“Rabbi Klein pretty much gives everything of himself to Chabad,” said graduating senior and Chabad student executive board president Rachel Zinn, who received the Young Leadership Award at the dinner. “He spends every waking moment doing something for our community and, believe me, those waking moments far outnumber his sleeping moments. He’s the most welcoming and enthusiastic person. He makes the Chabad House what it is.”

“It was great to see so many community members and people who support the Chabad House come out and celebrate with Rabbi Klein,” added Northwestern senior Michael Zaslow. “He’s an incredibly warm and outgoing person. Whether it’s Shabbat dinners or just hanging out on a Friday night, Chabad has really provided me with a home away from home.”

Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, center, celebrates the holiday of Purim with Northwestern students.
Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, center, celebrates the holiday of Purim with Northwestern students.

A Bumpy Ride

The journey of the past 25 years has had its challenges for the Chabad House, which was founded on a campus where Jewish life was not always so welcome.

“When we came here, the university was somewhat hostile to Jewish life,” explained Klein, who arrived in the summer of 1985. “There was no kosher meal plan and it was commonplace to give mandatory classes on the High Holidays. All of our competitors – Cornell, Stanford, Harvard – offered a kosher meal plan 10 to 15 years before we did.

“There was no Jewish fraternity on campus,” continued the rabbi, who happens to be an honorary brother of the historically Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. “We were one of the last universities to get rid of its required quotas.”

In conversations, Klein refers to “closet Jews,” those Northwestern student who, prior to the Chabad House’s strong presence, were embarrassed to embrace Judaism in any sort of public matter lest they be ostracized by various elements on campus.

“Jews didn’t necessarily want to ‘do,’ Jewish,” recalled the rabbi. “The quota had been in place for so long that they were afraid to wear their Judaism on their sleeve. If you got 30 students to come to a campus-wide Shabbat dinner, that was considered a huge success.”

But today, Jewish life is not only tolerated at Northwestern, but also welcomed and encouraged. The school sports a kosher meal plan, as well as an AEPi chapter, and on any given Friday night, you can find upwards of 125 students at the Chabad House dinner. Of the approximately 8,800 undergraduates, a full 13.6 percent identify themselves as Jewish; even Morton Schapiro, the university’s third Jewish president, keeps kosher.

“Now the university embraces Jewish life to the nth degree,” said Klein. “They are supporting us in a variety of different ways. We work together with school faculty and staff to put together programming. We have helped change and transform the very ethos of the Northwestern University campus.

“Today, campus members of the Jewish faith can embrace their Jewish life without any sense of intimidation,” he added. “They can focus on their academics without having to stifle any facet of their Jewish life.”

Zinn, who participated in a summer 2008 Taglit-Birthright Israel trip led by Klein and run by Mayanot, considers it one of her favorite Chabad memories.

“Going to Israel with Rabbi Klein was one of the best experiences of my life,” she effused. “It helped me to get even more involved in Chabad when I got back to school and allowed me to return to Israel in the winter of 2009 as a student chaperone. I never would have done that had it not been for Rabbi Klein.”

In addition to its Sabbath dinners and Israel trips, the Chabad House runs a host of social and educational events, including hospital visitations, alternate Spring Break trips to South America, weekly Torah classes, and sessions of the popular Sinai Scholars Society.

Klein’s future plan for Chabad is to expand even more so that it will be able to affectively reach every Jewish student on campus.

“Because we provide such an open and embracing environment, we make everybody feel comfortable,” he stated. “We embrace students for who they are and we support them in a variety of different ways. We help everyone who comes through our doors and who we meet on campus to grow in their Jewish identity and develop Jewish pride. We truly create a home away from home.”