Sandra Bram’s first encounter with Chabad was typical of many college students. On a breezy California afternoon in the fall of 2009, clad in jeans and a T-shirt, she first met Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook on the campus of California State University of Northridge. A college campus was the last place she thought she’d ever see an Orthodox rabbi. Little did she know that first encounter would be the start of a wondrous journey that she describes as a “nonstop soap opera” towards embracing Judaism.

“It’s been a journey,” she says with a laugh. Today, nearly 12 years later, in August, Sandra and her husband, Rabbi Mendy Paul, have joined the staff at Chabad of CSUN. “I want to give other students the same profound life-changing experience that began for me while I was on campus,” she says.

Sandra was born in Los Angeles and lived in the South of France for 12 years of her childhood. Her mother and father, both from traditional families, divorced when she was two. Having grown up in Algeria with the Sephardic tradition of receiving blessings from holy people, her mother had traveled to New York to receive a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.


Later, when the family moved to France, they became affiliated with Chabad. It was because of the connection that her mother felt, hanging in the Bram’s home was a small photo of the Rebbe. “It was something that was just kind of always there,” she says. “I never thought much about it; I thought he must be a relative,” she says.

Carefree on Campus

Slowly, but surely, Sandra warmed up to Judaism while on campus.
Slowly, but surely, Sandra warmed up to Judaism while on campus.

Sandra’s own relationship with Chabad began in the fall of 2009. She was 17 going on 18, and wanted to become an actress. “My mother thought that communications would be a better route as a long-term career goal, so I ended up majoring in communications, and I minored in public relations with a specialty in event planning,” she relates. Sandra describes herself as somewhat of a “social butterfly. I had a you-only-live-once, spontaneous, carefree approach to life. I had joined the Jewish sorority, which was at the time called Gamma Alpha Beta (now Sigma 8 Pi). I definitely did not consider myself religious, although I did feel very proud to be Jewish,” she says.

One of her first main encounters with Chabad, she recalls, was when she was invited to attend the Pegisha Shabbaton for college students in Brooklyn, N.Y. A “Cali Girl,” Sandra says she was enamored by the notion of touring the East Coast. “They said that for $199, you could join the trip to ‘see New York City.’ That sounded exciting enough to me, and I decided to join, convincing some of my friends to join the trip as well.” The weekend experience in Brooklyn’s Chabad community was not the glitzy and glamorous trip that she had expected. Disappointed, she decided to invent some fun of her own.

“I was like, ‘I gotta make a plan.’ So Friday night, I arranged a party bus to Manhattan along with a bunch of my friends. The scene is still fresh in my mind,” she says “It was right after Friday-night candle-lighting. The party bus pulls up in front of the Shabbaton venue with music blaring and lights flashing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rabbi Brook. ‘C’mon Rabbi!’ I said, ‘We’re going to the city! Wanna join?’ I didn’t have much of a concept of the holiness of Shabbat. In my mind, I was ‘saving the world’ from a life doomed to boredom and lame experiences.”

Rabbi Brook did not end up joining that trip to the city, of course, and Sandra was pleasantly surprised to find that she very much enjoyed the weekend when it came to an end on Sunday afternoon. “In my experience, any epic event ends with this huge exciting experience, so I didn’t understand why we were ending the Shabbaton on such a high ... at a cemetery,” she says, referring to the Ohel in Queens, N.Y, the resting place of the Rebbe.

“That first time visiting the Ohel, I don’t think I really felt much. I was 18 at the time, trying to blend in with the crowd and stay away from showing emotion. The whole idea of Chabad, Chassidism and Orthodoxy was a very aloof concept for me. In some part of my mind, I felt that religious people had ulterior motives.”

Sandra Paul, center, Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, and a student prepare for Chanukah on campus in 2016.
Sandra Paul, center, Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, and a student prepare for Chanukah on campus in 2016.

A Transformative Shabbat

Sandra recalls how on one Shabbat afternoon, she arrived at the Brook’s home just before candle-lighting. “Oh no,” I thought. “Raizel is probably going to ask me if I want to light Shabbat candles.” She says that she felt like an imposter were she to do so, knowing that she was planning on going to a party right after candle-lighting.

“‘Nah, it’s fine,’ I said, dangling my car keys in my hand. ‘Look, I’m going out.’” Raizel didn’t seem to see the contradiction. “That’s fine,” she said with a smile. “You’re still more than welcome to light.” She explained that every mitzvah stands for itself. “Whatever you’re planning on doing afterwards doesn’t take away from the mitzvah,” she said.

“I felt such genuineness in her voice that from then on, I stopped believing that she had ulterior motives.”

“I always thought they were trying to ‘make me religious.’ It was at that point that I realized that they just genuinely wanted me to experience Judaism. Shlichus on campus is very much not about ‘religious people.’ If we were looking for a religious person on campus, we’d be in the wrong spot,” she says. “When you have Jews of every shape, size and color, that’s how you really know that you have got a Chabad House. Once I got past the front that I’d built up of ‘I’m not religious, stop trying to make me religious,’ I was able to get past that hurdle and actually explore what they had to offer.”

When Paul got married in November of 2017 in Brooklyn, the whole Brook family flew in from California for the wedding.
When Paul got married in November of 2017 in Brooklyn, the whole Brook family flew in from California for the wedding.

Warming to Judaism

Slowly, but surely, Sandra warmed up to Judaism. “At first, what got me hooked was all the teachings of the Rebbe. The way in which the Rebbe spoke about current events and life struggles in such a down-to-earth manner really resonated with me. I absolutely loved learning Tanyaand Chassidic mysticism. It took me time to adapt to the more basic parts of Judaism like Shabbat and kosher. Rabbi Chaim Shaul and Raizel always tell me that I was a Chassid (follower of Chabad) before I was frum (religious).”

During her four and a half years at CSUN, Sandra fell in love with the Brook family and with their children. Getting to experience the ins and outs of daily Jewish living was most incredible for her. “Chabad on Campus outreach is unique in that it’s so natural and organic. The model of a ‘Chabad House’ rings especially resonant since that’s literally what it is—a home. Most campus shluchim run Chabad out of their home. Every time I visited Chabad, I was filled with this warm, homey feeling. The constant food being cooked, the toys all over the floor, watching the shlucha not just teach Judaism but ‘live and breathe’ it was fascinating. I watched in awe as Jewish life unfolded in front of me.” Sandra credits her parents who lovingly supported her in her journey towards orthodox Judaism “my parents have always been supportive of all of my endeavors and especially in me becoming religious. They’ve made me proud to be who I am today and played a huge factor in my growth.”

Paul at her wedding in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2017.
Paul at her wedding in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2017.

Speaking to the importance of giving college students the opportunity to experience Jewish living, Sandra says that she hopes to give over that homey feeling when students enter her home at CSUN. “There’s a beauty in having the shluchim actually live in the Chabad House. Seeing a shlucha at an event, when the house is clean and everything looks super-polished is one thing. For me, seeing the hustle and bustle of daily life, the food being cooked, the daily Jewish life, felt most authentic to me. This is essentially what made me fall in love with Chabad and with Judaism.”

Sandra says that when she and her husband move to Northridge in August, they are going to be living in the Chabad House (now a separate entity from the Brook home). She’s excited to share that warm experience with the Jewish students at CSUN.

Participating in Sinai Scholars, studying at Mayanot in Jerusalem, Machon L’Yahadus in Crown Heights, and Jewish Summer Fellowship in Upstate New York and joining the IsraelLinks trip were all major turning points in her journey with Judaism. “I always had an ‘out of the box,’ colorful sort of personality,” she says. “Now that I’m religious, I honestly don’t feel like any of that changed. I feel like I’m the same ‘young at heart’ person. Becoming religious has only enhanced who I am. As a college student, I was always on the lookout for a good adventure; I wanted to live my life to the fullest. That still very much holds true.”

“My friends from college who I’m still in touch with have told me, ‘Wow, you really didn’t change.’ I might look different externally, but internally I feel exactly the same as before. Now it is just with a sense of purpose and a drive to make the world a better place.”

Rabbi Mendy and Sandra Paul and their daughter, Yocheved Gila.
Rabbi Mendy and Sandra Paul and their daughter, Yocheved Gila.

‘To Reach Out to a Fellow Jew’

Sandra says she’s looking forward to being back on her “old stomping grounds” at CSUN. “I feel like I never really graduated from Chabad of CSUN. It’s kind of cool to think that when I’m going to meet students on campus, I’ll be able to give them direction and tell them about my personal experience,” she adds.

Sandra and her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter, Yocheved Gila, moved back on Aug. 3.

“Even though I never met the Rebbe personally, I feel like my relationship with the Rebbe evolves over time, and the relationship is something I work on a daily basis,” she explains. “I really feel like the Rebbe is taking me by the hand by giving me and my family this opportunity. I feel like it’s meant to be.”

As for the Brooks, Sandra said that her relationship with them has evolved from teacher-student to feeling like they are family members. “They’re my spiritual parents,” she says. “I confide in them all the time.”

Sandra says she never thought she would marry someone who grew up religious. When she met Mendy, she recalls mulling everything over with her best friend from college, Dani. “Dani asked me, ‘What’s the guy’s name?” I said, ‘Mendy.’ ‘Cool, what’s that short for?’ ‘Menachem Mendel.’ ‘Oh my,’” Dani exclaimed. “Isn’t that the Rebbe’s name? You have such a special connection with the Rebbe; this is a clear sign that it's definitely meant to marry him.’”

She recalls gently explaining that half of the boys in Chabad are named Menachem Mendel.”

“My husband and I are there to be a lighthouse for the students at CSUN. Our mission is to inspire other kids in the way that Chabad inspired me. We’re here in this world to reach out to a fellow Jew. We take our lead from the Rebbe, who said it best: Every Jew matters, and one should never be satisfied today with the amount of work he did yesterday.”

Readers can partner with the Paul family in their new role at Chabad of CSUN here.