They came from Ohio. California. Kansas. France. Arizona. Florida. England. Israel. Wisconsin. Canada. To mention just a few. They came from small private colleges, enormous state schools, community colleges and Ivy Leagues. But what they had in common far outweighed their differences…they were all Jewish students joining together to grow, learn and be inspired at the annual Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton, an educational and leadership conference, held this year in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, from Oct. 25-27.

From the minute the students arrived, they were treated to a plethora of exciting activities and options. While some chose Friday morning to hop on the double-decker tour bus making its way to Manhattan, others took a leisurely guided tour through the streets of Crown Heights, and still others enjoyed spending time in the one-of-its-kind Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn. There was also the opportunity to watch a powerful documentary about a Holocaust survivor and his work educating college students about World War II. Following the showing of “A Lion of Judah,” director Matt Mindell was available to answer questions. And, of course, alongside all the options, the food flowed nonstop, as everyone knows that a good meal is a college student’s best friend.

Not Your Typical Weekend Get-Together

This wasn’t your typical weekend get-together. It was an experience—an experience of a lifetime. As stated by Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International Foundation, “The energy of the Shabbaton was incredibly inspiring. Hundreds of students from different backgrounds joined together and created one unified family as they spent their time learning, connecting, sharing and growing. They are each returning to their Chabad on Campus center that much stronger and committed as individuals and as Jews.”

During the course of the day, the students met their host families where they slept and would be joining for the Friday-night meal. The students continuously spoke about their amazement that complete strangers would not only welcome them into their homes, but really seemed to be grateful for the opportunity to host them. And the fact that they provided them with keys of their own showed a level of trust and a sense of community that they were simply not accustomed to. This would also be, for many, the first time they were completely immersed in a Shabbat experience and be able to observe Shabbat in its fullness.

Students lighting candles to usher in the Shabbat. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson/
Students lighting candles to usher in the Shabbat. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson/

Paul Cooper Vitale, president of his Chabad on Campus center at the University of Cincinnati, said: “My most memorable part of the weekend was keeping Shabbat. Because of school and work I never have the chance to actually go tech-free, but I did it! And it was beautiful!”

To usher in Shabbat, all of the students joined back together and hundreds of young Jewish women joined together, arm in arm, along with their rebbetzins, for a multimedia ceremony prior to lighting their Shabbat candles. As described by Daniel Mael, a student at Brandeis University, “To see the joy and happiness eachshliach shared with their students was amazing and an indication of the power of these relationships.”

The students then listened to a powerful introduction about Shabbat and the Shabbaton from two of the main speakers of the weekend, David Nesenoff and Kivi Berhard.

Following their Friday-night meals with their hosts, the students made their way back to the Oholei Torah center, where the Shabbat program was held. Students were able to choose from a number of topics, interactive discussions and Chassidic gatherings. It’s hard to know when the last of the students returned to their hosts, but at 2 a.m., the evening remained in full swing with hundreds of students sitting around having in-depth discussions.

Unparalleled Energy

A highlight of the weekend was spending Shabbat lunch together, with more than 1,000 people sitting together in the ballroom. Alex Zimmern, a junior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, reflected that “the energy you feel in a room with hundreds of young, enthusiastic and proud Jews in unparalleled to anything I have ever felt before.”

This was Zimmern’s first time attending the Shabbaton, and she came with her Rebbetzin, Henya Matusof. The keynote speaker during the lunch was Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, chairman of Chabad on Campus International Foundation.

Rabbi Kotlarsky greatly moved the students when he spoke about the recent Pew report claiming the decline in Jewish observance and affiliation in today’s day and age. In a booming voice, he emphasized how this very group was the example that the report was simply not accurate. "You are living proof that there is a Jewish future!" he told them.

Lunch was followed by a wide range of options for lectures with world-renowned speakers, and classes were so popular that students could be found sitting on the floors and window sills in order to pack themselves into the rooms. Rabbi Shais Taub, one of the presenters, noted: “To anyone who spends some time at the Shabbaton, it becomes clear that these young people are not just there to have a good time. They have come in order to engage in something meaningful. Underlying all the fun, there is a constant and palpable feeling in the air of real serious commitment to Judaism. The impact of such an event on a young person's life has got to be profound."

Students Offered 'A Taste of Yeshiva'

Alongside the regular classes was a special “Taste of Yeshiva Experience" for students who were looking for more advanced and text-based learning, and had plans to hopefully attend a yeshiva program in the near future. The goal was to introduce them to the type of learning they would experience in a yeshiva setting and for them to meet other like-minded students also considering enrollment in such a program. Recently, Rabbi and Chaya Schurder began working for Chabad on Campus International Foundation as Student Advisors to provide information and support to students wanting to join a yeshiva program.

Throughout the Shabbaton, they led the “Taste of Yeshiva” track and had the opportunity to meet and interact with the more than 130 students who were part of this group. “It was heartwarming to see the genuine interest of so many students to learn, connect with each other. I look forward to staying in touch with many students and helping them turn their dream of going to learn into a reality,” explained Chaya Schurder.

Shabbat ended with a heartfelt and moving musical program that included a beautiful Havdalah service led by singer and songwriter Moshe Hecht. The students once again packed the ballroom singing and dancing as the flame of the Havdalah candle glowed. And then alongside a delicious dairy buffet, the students participated in “The Big Quiz Thing,” an interactive and dynamic game show that had the students in friendly competition, laughing throughout the evening.

The Havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of the Shabbat is always a highlight at the annual conference. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson/
The Havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of the Shabbat is always a highlight at the annual conference. (Photo: Bentzi Sasson/

Late Into the Night

Once again, at 2 in the morning, students could be found speaking with new friends, talking to their rabbis and sitting around tables engaged in discussion. As noted by Rabbi Eitan Webb, director of the Scharf Family Chabad House at Princeton University, “The Shabbaton brings together students from across the full range of Jewish observance and affords everyone an opportunity to learn and grow from each other.”

The next morning was the culmination of the entire weekend when the students had the opportunity to go to the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—known as the “Ohel.” The students were given a class in the meaning of visiting the grave of a righteous person, the holiness of the location and the role of a Rebbe to his Chassidim. Students were visibly moved by the experience with many in tears as they came back onto the buses at the end. During the bus ride, they heard from some of the speakers about their personal stories and interaction with the Rebbe, as well as their journey to Judaism.

Later on Sunday, as the students stood with their luggage and posed for pictures one last time, promises to stay in touch could be heard reverberating through the crowd. And they meant it. Only days later, they have been Facebooking one another, tagging each other in pictures and making plans to get together again in the near future. Jordan Sandler, a junior at University of Arizona, summed it up when he said, “Each school had their own identity and each fraternity/sorority had their own letters, but in the end, we were all Jews, and the Shabbaton really proved to me that friends will stick together, but Jews will be bound for life.”