In terms of Jewish life, Florida is hotter than ever. And that applies to the student situation as well.

At Florida State University, for example, the Jewish student body has been growing at a significant rate, and accordingly, the Chabad center that’s there to serve them has continued to grow as well, meeting their needs as they vary and develop.

Chanie and Schneur Oirechman moved to Tallahassee, Fla., the state’s capital, about 15 years ago. At the time, they were operating Chabad-Lubavitch of the Panhandle-Tallahassee and Chabad at FSU from their five-bedroom home, using three of the bedrooms and the main living space for programs, classes and hosting guests.

About a dozen students regularly came to programs in the beginning. That number rose to as many as 100 after just a few years.

“As our family grew (they are the parents of eight children) and Chabad grew, we needed a new facility,” says Chanie Oirechman, who is originally from Israel. Nine years ago, the couple moved into a new building, and again the time has come for them to expand.

Last month they purchased a 3-acre property on the edge of campus, with plans to knock down the building that’s there (a church) and construct a new one. The new Chabad center is expected to be about 20,000 square feet—four times larger than their current building and closer to campus as well.

That same day before a group photo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott participated in a mock Passover seder at the Chabad House. (Photo: Meredyth Hope Hall)
That same day before a group photo, Florida Gov. Rick Scott participated in a mock Passover seder at the Chabad House. (Photo: Meredyth Hope Hall)

Chabad hosted 500 people at their recent Passover seders—one for students and one for the community—for a total cost of $35,000. Florida Gov. Rick Scott was there, as he is for many Chabad events, including the annual Chanukah public menorah-lighting. The Oirechmans gave out 1,000 menorahs during Chanukah and typically host hundreds of students for holidays.

One-on-One Relationships

“We do see a lot of growth,” she says of FSU’s Jewish student body, and “there’s a great need” for the services Chabad provides.

They estimate that roughly 4,000 Jewish students attend FSU—a number that’s steadily climbing. The couple also serves the local Jewish community, which includes about 1,500 families and individuals.

As for FSU, in addition to a champion football team, the school boasts one of the top law schools in the country. “The school is getting better and better. And there is more of a need for structured Jewish life,” says Rabbi Schneur Oirechman. “More and more students want to come be a part of it.”

The new facility will include a synagogue, library, dining room, laundry room and a gym—basically, a one-stop spot for student needs. While the Oirechmans currently provide some kosher food to students who request it, with the expansion they plan to implement more meal options for a nominal fee.

Students take time out for a little "BLT"—bagels, lox and tefillin with the rabbi.
Students take time out for a little "BLT"—bagels, lox and tefillin with the rabbi.

While their events, services and programs tend to bring a lot of Jewish students together, a big part of Chabad’s success on campus has been with their one-on-one relationships.

“We’ve impacted a lot of students this way,” says the rabbi. In fact, he estimates that 15 to 20 couples have met through Chabad and gotten married.

The $1 million property was purchased thanks to Moris (Moshe) and Lilian Tabacinik, who are well-known philanthropists, especially in Florida, where they reside. The Oirechmans will continue to fundraise to build the new facility.

‘Fulfillment and Meaning’

Anna Marks-Shafton, 22, of Sarasota, Fla., became Shomer Shabbat (observant) in large part because of Chabad and the Oirechmans. Originally from Sarasota, she recently graduated from FSU with a degree in hospitality.

Rabbi Schneur and Chanie Oirechman
Rabbi Schneur and Chanie Oirechman

The Oirechmans had suggested that she attend IsraeLinks, a Chabad on Campus program that offers college students an in-depth exploration of Israel and their Jewish heritage. After her trip last summer, Marks-Shafton says she came home transformed and next year plans to attend seminary in Jerusalem.

The graduating senior has regularly attended Chabad classes and programs for four years. “It completely changed my life, changed my direction,” she says. “I now have a feeling of fulfillment and meaning.”

Michelle Faidengold of Westin, Fla., who graduates this month with a degree in marketing management, started going to Chabad her very first week at school.

The 22-year-old notes that she grew up traditional, but learned more from taking classes—and the ensuing deep conversations—at Chabad. She was very active with Chabad all four years on campus and even created the Chabad at FSU Facebook page.

Chanie Oirechman, second from right, holds a weekly Tanya class for women.
Chanie Oirechman, second from right, holds a weekly Tanya class for women.

Faidengold studied at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies program in Jerusalem during the summer between her sophomore and junior years, which she describes as a “totally different experience” for her in that it added vibrancy and helped really connect her to her Judaism.

On a more personal level, the Oirechman family has had a huge impact on her life, she says. She has spent quality time with them, helping prepare Shabbat meals each week, and sharing holidays and university-related events.

“I always call Chanie and ask for guidance. She always gives me good advice,” says Faidengold, adding that the highlight of her time at FSU has been her connection with Chabad.

For her part, Chanie Oirechman says she just tries to be there to offer support. And she adds that the college students boost her family as well: “Our kids have benefited a lot from all the people who come to our home.”

Faidengold, however, attributes the credit right back to them.

“When people go to college, they try to find themselves. Many just let loose before marriage and a career,” she says, emphasizing that Chabad was her “rock”—a constant source of connection and spirituality. “I was very fortunate to have a home away from home.”

Continues Faidengold: “I definitely applaud and appreciate their dedication and hard work, the excitement and joy they bring, and the way they move to an area like Tallahassee that has no Jewish community and dedicate their lives to teaching people about Judaism.”

Chabad holds classes, events and holiday programs for university students, and also hosts more casual activities, like this barbecue.
Chabad holds classes, events and holiday programs for university students, and also hosts more casual activities, like this barbecue.