With summer drawing to a close, many university students across North America are returning to campus or beginning college for the first time. But for some, it’s not the books or the studying that they missed over the summer, but the sense of community they feel at their campus Chabad House.

Elena Weissman, a third year history student at the University of Virginia, is happy to be back after spending a semester in Israel.

While she had a good time, she said, “It’s not the same as coming back to a table of familiar faces” at the home of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shlomo and Channa Mayer. “I feel at home.”

For the first Sabbath celebration last week, Weissman shared how the incredibly rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake, which struck on the first day of classes and was centered just 37 miles from Charlottesville, shook her to her core.

“There was a mad rush for the door,” said Weissman, who was in the library when the temblor struck last Tuesday. “There was a stampede. There were people everywhere jostling each other to get out.”

She noticed how it appeared that everyone was just trying to save themselves.

So around the Mayers’ table at an event they dubbed “Shabbat Hurriquake” – Hurricane Irene was moving north across the East Coast that weekend – Weissman and others discussed how they could help others in their everyday lives.

“It was a big bonding experience,” said Channa Mayer. “People had something to share.”

Café Chabad is one of Rabbi Shlomo and Channa Mayer’s signature programs.
Café Chabad is one of Rabbi Shlomo and Channa Mayer’s signature programs.

Up at the University of Vermont, classes were supposed to start on Monday of this week. But with the remnants of Irene still flooding other parts of the state, the Burlington school pushed off classes until yesterday.

Tonight, Chabad of the University of Vermont is hosting a big Welcome Back barbecue.

“It’s a beautiful day,” reported co-director Chana Wilhelm. “It’s going to be nice.”

And thanks to a June special orientation for incoming where Wilhelm and her husband, Rabbi Zalman Wilhelm, had a table to sign up students for programs, she is expecting many freshmen to come as well.

“Last night I called every single one of them and most said they’re coming,” she said.

At the barbecue, the Wilhelms will tell students about their upcoming programs, including the opportunity for students to build their own ram’s horns for the quickly-approaching holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

Other programs include the Chabad House’s popular Shabbat-to-Go initiative, which brings more than 200 kosher meals and challahs to students who won’t be able to make it for Sabbath dinner. This will be the first year that the program receives university funding.

At the University of Colorado in Boulder, classes began last week, the same day as a 5.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the state and its neighbors in New Mexico and Kansas. Despite the aftershocks, more than 100 students showed up for the Chabad House’s Welcome Back Shabbat dinner.

And last night, a group of Jewish women from the university celebrated the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul – signaling one month until the Jewish New Year – with an art activity and a discussion on women in the Torah.

In addition to an array of Torah classes and discussions on Jewish mysticism, the Wilhelms are also planning a Jewish Festival Night this month that will feature an art display and a concert by the Israeli Moshav Band.

Graduate students enjoy a cruise on the Ottawa River organized by the Chabad Student Network of Ottawa, Canada.
Graduate students enjoy a cruise on the Ottawa River organized by the Chabad Student Network of Ottawa, Canada.

Graduate Students Too

Over in Canada, where classes haven’t yet begun at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, summer programs are continuing at the Rohr Chabad Student Network of Ottawa. Last month, the organization hosted its first-ever summer cruise for about 90 graduate students and young professionals along the Ottawa River.

“We just started offering programs specifically for the older crowd so they are not grouped together with the younger undergraduates,” said Yocheved Boyarsky, who directs the Chabad Student Network together with her husband, Rabbi Chaim Boyarsky.

The next scheduled event for graduate students is a clothing drive brunch on Sept. 11. The upcoming calendar also features a community service program every month, such as this month’s barbeque for the homeless and next month’s volunteer event at the local children’s hospital.

“It gives students a feeling of being involved and really helping others,” said Boyarsky.

A native of Long Beach, Calif., Boyarksy also has programs just for women – the rabbi has programs just for men as well – including a weekly Smoothies and Study class exploring the power of faith and prayer.

After a successful Shabbat 200 last year – a massive Sabbath dinner for hundreds of people – the Boyarskys will try a Shabbat 300 this March.

“We decided why not?” she said. “Let’s see if we can do it.”