When Ryan Dosetareh arrived at Georgia State University as a freshman in 2004 – primarily a commuter school for Atlanta-area students, many of GSU’s enrollees, like Dosetareh did, bunk at home with their parents – there wasn’t much going on in the way of on-campus Jewish organizations.

Of an estimated 30,000 students, the school’s Jewish population hovered around 1,000, and many Jewish students, though they had a handful of groups, lacked a sense of community.

“College is all about discovery,” says Dosetareh, who’s since graduated GSU and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Medical Science in Anesthesiology at Emory University. “In college, we try to find meaning. Many may come to college knowing they are Jewish, but what does that mean? How was a Jew to find him or herself? There were all kind of groups on campus, but not a stable and strong Jewish group.”

Hoping to fill the perceived cultural void, Doseterah established an umbrella organization called The Jewish Student Center that helped kick-start and strengthen several chapters of on-campus Jewish groups, including Hillel, and Alpha Epsilon Pi, a historically Jewish fraternity. Doseterah also threw his support behind a Chabad-Lubavitch student group established just before he got to campus.

“Of all the Jewish outreach programs out there, I found Chabad to offer the biggest presence and voice on campus for Jews of all backgrounds,” says Dosetareh, who contacted Rabbi Zalman Lipskier, director of the Chabad House at nearby Emory University.

“Rabbi Lipskier was very connectable to students,” recalls Doseterah. “He made himself available at all times and had devoted his life to providing Jewish students of any background with fun, meaningful programming that helped students form an identity of self and to connect to their heritage.”

With a limited budget and Lipskier’s assistance, Dosetareh was able to form a weekly “lunch and learn” study session, where between 15 and 25 students would gather together over a kosher meal while Lipskier lead discussions on topics ranging from Torah to Talmud.

“No matter how busy his schedule was in running programs with other campuses, he would make sure to pick up pizza or Chinese food every week, bring it to campus, and schlep it to our room for lunch and learn,” recalls Doseterah, who also credits Rabbi Shlomo Elkan, today director of the Chabad House serving Oberlin College in Ohio, with helping to make Jewish life at GSU a reality.

Rabbi Zalman Lipskier helps a Jewish student don the prayer boxes known as tefillin.
Rabbi Zalman Lipskier helps a Jewish student don the prayer boxes known as tefillin.

“We started out very small,” he continues, “but it didn’t take too long until we outgrew the room the university had provided us with; students would literally be flowing out into the hallway to listen to the rabbi. The rabbi also invited everyone for a five-course Sabbath meal every Friday night at his home. Eventually, the rabbi had to get a huge tent pitched in his backyard to serve the growing demand from students of Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and other schools.”

Yana Yashevsky, a self-professed “assimilated Russian Jew” who grew up in the former Soviet Union before relocating with her family to Atlanta and enrolling at GSU, was one of those students.

“I had no idea about my Jewish background,” says Yashevsky, whose first taste of Judaism was listening to the songs of Jewish pop artist Matisyahu. “I decided to check out [Chabad], and my life was really touched by what Rabbi Lipskier was saying. For the first time in my life I was getting really good answers for spirituality and life.”

From that point onward Yashevsky, who began keeping the Sabbath, worked to increase Chabad’s presence at GSU. After Doseterah graduated, Yashevsky became president of the student group, formed a board, and helped spearhead a fundraising campaign to establish an official Chabad House on GSU’s campus.

“I’m never the type to say, ‘Let’s do less,’ ” explains Yashevsky, who’s since graduated and currently works for Bais Chana Women’s International, a Chabad-Lubavitch run organization that provides Jewish learning experiences for women all over the world. “I’m the type who says let’s do more.”

Yashevsky’s determination – and that of all the other GSU students involved – paid off.

This past fall, Chabad of Downtown Universities, which serves students from GSU and the Georgia Institute of Technology, officially opened its doors, with Rabbi Shlomo and Shifra Sharfstein as its directors.

“Right now we’re sort of feeling it out and building it up,” says Shlomo Sharfstein, who is working on developing more Sabbath programming and recently threw a Chanukah party for students and their parents, “We hope to start with getting to know more people and finding people not yet involved with Chabad and bring them in.”

As Doserterah points out, none of this could have happened without the tireless efforts of GSU students, who worked passionately to create a strong sense of Jewish identity at their school.

“Today, there is a vibrant Jewish voice on campus,” he marvels. “I’m not sure if this would have been possible if there was no forum or base for the Jewish students to come together and turn this dream into a reality.”