Combining the spiritual beauty of Shabbat with classes, workshops and panel discussions at 600 locations around the world, this past weekend’s ShabbaTTogether gatherings, coordinated by the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII), highlighted the importance of inclusion within Jewish communities worldwide.

Nina Pfrenger, a student at Texas A&M University, says that she was deeply impressed by ShabbaTTogether in College Station, Texas, hosted by Rabbi Yossi and Manya Lazaroff, co-directors of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center at Texas A&M University.

“Manya Lazaroff spoke beautifully about what inclusion means and how inclusion is such a Jewish concept, being that Judaism is all about unity and connection,” Pfrenger tells She thought it was special that a group of Jewish college students from Stony Brook on Long Island, N.Y., traveled all the way to College Station to take part in their ShabbaTTogether. “It added to the feeling of unity. I’m really glad I got to participate in such a unique event.”

Explaining that she believes that mental-health awareness is “the call of the hour,” Manya Lazaroff says that the resources that RCII provided her with gave her the tools to create lasting impact in her community of college students, opened up a vital dialogue and created a space for students to begin connecting and sharing. She is also currently working on a program called “ReJOYvination 360,” to break the stigmas surrounding mental health.

“Our initiative is about taking student wellness and mental health seriously,” says Lazaroff. “We have a local psychologist who is a consultant for this initiative, and a board of students who decided to get involved as a result of their life experience as well as their knowledge of the challenges that their fellow students face on a daily basis."

Lazaroff notes that Chabad at Texas A&M has already held Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training for the students, and they are looking forward to a Safetalk workshop in the fall. She says that her goal is to empower students to continue learning and to open up about this vital topic. “We want our students to be educated on both physical disabilities and also the ‘invisible disabilities’ that affect college students across the globe. The ‘ReJOYvination 360’ program is a multifaceted initiative that will include workshops, dinner and discussions, and other educationally enriching programs to help our students learn how to be ‘first responders’ when it comes to mental health.”

Chanie Lazaroff and guests prep for ShabbaTTogether at Chabad of Uptown in Houston.
Chanie Lazaroff and guests prep for ShabbaTTogether at Chabad of Uptown in Houston.

In Houston, ShabbaTTogether began with a Friday-night dinner led by Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, co-director of Chabad of Uptown with his wife, Chanie, for young professionals and young adults with disabilities from the local Friendship Circle. On Shabbat day, Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, director of Friendship Circle in Houston, spoke about the idea and importance of inclusion. On Sunday, an eight-hour course trained people in Mental Health First Aid.

Bill Coorsh’s daughter Jodie is a young woman with disabilities and a member of Chabad’s Friendship Circle. “The Shabbat Together event, hosted by Chabad of Uptown was fabulous,” he says. “Rabbi Lazaroff and Rebbetzin Chanie know Jodie and always make her feel comfortable and welcome. It’s really great to see such love and inclusion of people with disabilities within the Chabad community here.”

On Long Island N.Y., Rabbi Anchelle and Bluma Perl, co-directors of Chabad of Mineola hosted a ShabbaTTogether. Following Havdalah, guest speaker Dr. Stephen Shore, a professor of special education at Adelphi University who is autistic and travels the world lecturing on the subject, spoke about inclusion and mental health.

Rabbi Anschelle Perl and guests at the Havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of Shabbat in Mineola, N.Y.
Rabbi Anschelle Perl and guests at the Havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of Shabbat in Mineola, N.Y.

An Expanded Program Brings Global Awareness

The second annual International ShabbaTTogether weekend represented a significant expansion by the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative, growing from 260 venues last year to 600 this year.

Topics such as “The Theory of Inclusion, Human Worth and Dignity” and “The Thing About Normal” were addressed head on. The intention was to spark conversations and open up new avenues of dialogue for adults and teens with disabilities and mental-health conditions to feel physically and emotionally supported at the Jewish communal institutions they attend.

“Our main goal in creating the ShabbaTTogether weekend was to start the conversation on inclusion,” says Dr. Sarah Kranz-Ciment, PT, DPT, director of the RCII. “The truth is inclusion is not a weekend thing. It’s a mindset shift, a way of living and leading. Our goal is to get the conversations started and to turn inclusion from a daunting task and a largely misunderstood topic into a manageable, attainable goal.”

Kranz-Ciment says that the feedback she has received from last year’s ShabbaTTogether was overwhelmingly positive. “Since then, I’ve been hearing beautiful sentiments about how Chabad institutions worldwide are actively leading in bringing awareness to disabilities and mental-health conditions within their communities.” One such example, was from Rabbi Anchelle Perl in that he always reminds his community members that he can make a “Mi Sheberach” for people with mental-health conditions as well as physical medical conditions.

Participants in the Mental Health First Aid class in Houston display their certificates.
Participants in the Mental Health First Aid class in Houston display their certificates.

Tools to Create Positive Thinking

Deepening global awareness and spreading information on inclusion is something that Kranz-Ciment hopes will expand from year to year. This year’s ShabbaTTogether aimed to specifically focus on mental-health awareness which affects 25 percent of teenagers.

Chaya Howel, a college student from Valencia, Calif., who is associated with both Chabad of the University of Southern California (USC) and Chabad of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), shared that as she’s gotten to know Chabad more, she’s embraced the fact that her mental-health condition isn’t something to be ashamed of. She notes that Jewish mysticism has so many powerful tools to help people create positive thinking.

“The loving approach of Chassidism, together with medication and therapy, has really healed me,” she says. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. ShabbaTTogether is especially meaningful to me. It makes a statement that people with disabilities and mental-health conditions have a strong place within the Jewish community.”