An 18-wheeler semi frequently pulls up in front of the Tabacinic Lubavitch-Chabad Jewish Student & Community Center at the University of Florida, delivering massive amounts of kosher food. During the school year, Rabbi Berl and Chanie Goldman serve upwards of 400 students for Sabbath dinner – that number drops to about 150 each week during the summer – and their weekly Café Chabad draws between 30 and 60 students every Tuesday night.

In numbers of kosher meals served per university, they’re right there at the top, and they just broke new ground with the launch of Jewish Gator Kosher Dining and Catering. The program will offer kosher meals to students five nights a week, serving up community along with hot dishes.

“It’s not only having dinner and leaving, it’s more of a social night,” said Yael Subar of Miami, a senior majoring in physiology who serves on the Chabad House’s student board. “It’s not that expensive. They’ll go to Chabad instead of Subway for dinner.”

She said the draw is not just the food and the program’s social aspect, but also the Goldmans.

“They’re just amazing, friendly outgoing people who do a lot for the Jewish students here,” explained Subar. “They go above and beyond.”

When the Goldmans moved to Gainesville in 2000, they were a young married couple with a newborn baby who made a modest start leading the center. They recently had their seventh child, and their programming and outreach has expanded exponentially. More than 60 students serve on their advisory board, and hundreds more attend meals, events and classes.

Gainesville, with its rolling hills and fervor for Gator football and basketball, is 300 miles north of Miami and 300 miles south of Atlanta. The closest kosher restaurants are several hours away.

“There aren’t many other options. This is a worthy investment to give students the opportunity to eat kosher,” stated Berl Goldman. “We pledge to continue this opportunity.”

It’s one of the only programs of its kind in the country. Some schools may offer two nights a week, and some weekly, but five nights a week is almost unheard of, except among the larger private schools and a handful of public universities.

Rabbi Berl Goldman, fifth from left, directs the Tabacinic Lubavitch-Chabad Jewish Student & Community Center.
Rabbi Berl Goldman, fifth from left, directs the Tabacinic Lubavitch-Chabad Jewish Student & Community Center.

The rabbi first sought advice from his counterparts at schools such as Tulane University and at the University of Southern California, which offer similar but lower-scale kosher meal programs.

The University of Florida has more than 7,000 Jewish students out of total population of 50,000, though an official count hasn’t been taken in more than a decade. The students come from a variety of backgrounds, and many are secular.

The new meal program’s kosher buffet will cycle through regional cuisines, such as Mexican, Middle Eastern and Italian, and will cost $10 per meal, although students can reduce the cost to $7 with a pre-purchased weekly meal plan.

“We’re very excited about kosher dining for Jewish Gators,” said Goldman. “It’s not only a service, it’s a luxurious service. And while some students already keep kosher on their own, it’s an opportunity for others to learn about keeping kosher.”

Chelsea Gober, a junior from Coral Springs, Fla., who also serves on the student board, said she spends more time at the Chabad House than in her own apartment. Whether it’s the Thursday-night Torah class or Sabbath dinner, she almost never misses an event.

“It’s a great opportunity to take whenever it’s given,” she said.

The new kosher meal program grows out of weekly Sabbath dinners and a Tuesday night Café Chabad event.
The new kosher meal program grows out of weekly Sabbath dinners and a Tuesday night Café Chabad event.

Students wanted kosher food beyond Café Chabad, so the new meal program is a welcomed addition.

“We’re always saying it would be great if we could have a kosher meal option,” said Gober, adding that the buffet will be a big draw for hungry college students.

In advance of each Sabbath dinner, Chanie Goldman and a group of students belonging to the culinary committee stay up until 2 a.m. on Thursday nights preparing the food. They talk and they learn while they dice and bake.

“There’s a lot of spiritual growth during that time,” said Gober.

The Goldman’s annual program budget is about $500,000 to cover the extensive amounts of food, classes, programs and events for the hundreds of students, faculty and local Jewish community members they serve, including frequent out-of-town guests visiting prestigious Shands HealthCare. Moshe Tabacinic is Chabad’s chief benefactor, said the rabbi, and they are looking for additional help funding the growing kosher food program.

Dr. Michael Allen Wolf, a prominent University of Florida law professor, helps subsidize Café Chabad.

When his father’s mourning period ended in 2007, he and his wife thought that the best way to honor his memory would be to subsidize kosher dinners for UF students and the community.

“My father loved food, especially traditional, Eastern European, Jewish dishes,” said Wolf. “And he fondly remembered his years as an undergrad when a member of the Gainesville Jewish community provided kosher food for him and some of his observant fraternity brothers.”

The Wolf family regularly attends services, Café Chabad, and community events at the Chabad House.

Said Wolf: “Rabbi Berl and Chanie are universally admired for their friendliness, approachability, knowledge of Judaism, and inclusiveness.”