This week, Jewish college students from all over Texas and beyond are gearing up for a weekend of fun, friendship, and some old-fashioned southern hospitality. Hosted by the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student and Community Center serving Texas A&M University, the fourth annual Grand Texas Intercollegiate Shabbaton will draw about 200 students when it begins Feb. 10.

A&M senior Caren Mandelbaum has been hard at work, helping Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yossi and Manya Lazaroff plan and prep for the big “Celebrate Judaism, Celebrate Life” weekend. With no kosher caterers or bakeries for miles around, students are rolling up their sleeves in the Chabad House kitchen, she says.

“Students pitch in with the cooking, setting up, and just getting everything rolling,” adds Mandelbaum.

In a region known for its warmth and hospitality, the Aggies of College Station couldn’t be more pleased to welcome fellow students to their hometown. At 100 to 200 miles from three of the Lone Star States largest cities – Houston, Dallas and S. Antonio – A&M is an ideal place for a regional Jewish student weekend.

Of all the tasks she will be completing in the next few days, Mandelbaum says she is most excited about greeting students.

“It’s something we cherish,” she explains. “We try to put everyone at ease.”

The big event comes alongside similar regional gatherings co-sponsored by the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. Last weekend saw the first-ever Arizona Intercollegiate Shabbaton at Northern Arizona University.

“Each regional Shabbaton is a powerful and compelling Jewish experience,” says Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus. “Even more, Jewish college students realize that they are part of a greater community when they meet their counterparts from other schools.”

Many veterans of regional gatherings go on to attend the Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton held in New York each fall.

“For the first time, many students realize that there are Chabad Houses all over the world,” relates Chanie Lazaroff, co-director of Chabad of Uptown, which serves the University of Houston. “They have a chance to share their experiences with other Jewish students and broaden their horizons.”

University of Houston student Michael Kronman has attended every Texas Shabbaton since the program’s inception. As a student at a non-Jewish religious college, he looks forward to spending the weekend with peers who share his heritage.

“It’s refreshing to be able to get out of the community and be with Jewish people my own age,” he says.

The agenda for this weekend’s event includes entertaining and thought-provoking workshops, and a discussion about the Jewish influence on modern-day heroes and values led by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, director of Chabad of Clinton Hill and Pratt Institute in New York and author of the best-selling Up, Up and Oy Vey! Other classes will deal with issues such as the Jewish perspective on relationships and examinations of classic Jewish teachings.

Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff of Chababd of Uptown and a UT student welcome arrivals at a previous regional Shabbaton.
Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff of Chababd of Uptown and a UT student welcome arrivals at a previous regional Shabbaton.

“We try to make Judaism alive, vibrant and relevant to the students’ everyday lives,” says Yossi Lazaroff.

A major draw for female college students is the women’s-only question and answer forum, adds Manya Lazaroff. “We will have a panel of rebbetzins to answer any and every question that comes up. The forum’s focus will be on examining the bonds and common values that we share. It’s an opportunity to explore the Judaic perspective on women.”

A post-Sabbath colossal carnival on Saturday night will include Jewish crafts, a bonfire sing-along, and more, while a Sunday-morning breakfast will offer one last chance to network and don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin.

Ariel Lipski of the University of Houston was so inspired by last year’s departing breakfast that he’s been helping other young Jewish men don tefillin ever since.

“Some people never saw tefillin before that breakfast,” he observes. “It brought them closer to their Judaism.”