When hundreds of college students descend on the Chabad-Lubavitch enclave of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., later this week, they will represent the largest-such gathering in the Jewish movement's more-than half century of work on university campuses.

The reason for the pilgrimage of sorts is the annual International Student Shabbaton & Conference. And as it has done since 2002, the Chabad on Campus International Foundation – which coordinates a network of independently-operated campus-based Chabad Houses – will be hosting the Oct. 26-Oct. 28 conference, whose theme this year is "Jewish '07: Are Judaism and 2007 compatible?"

As of mid-week, registrations were well on-track to at least double the turnout last year, when more than 500 packed a yeshiva's ballroom for the Saturday night concert featuring the Ta Shma Chasidic hip hop group. This year, Chasidic Rock group 8th Day and Third House Rising, a relative newcomer to the R&B and Latin-fusion scenes, will be headlining the concert.

George and Pamela Rohr and the Davidsohn Family of New York sponsored the Shabbaton this year, making it possible for students to attend at deeply discounted rates.

Students said that they were looking forward to spending Shabbat with traditional Jewish families in Crown Heights. Because it is a residential neighborhood, Shabbaton organizers have always left it up to Chabad House directors to arrange accommodations for their students. Families in the community have, likewise, always stepped up to the plate, some taking in just two or three students, feeding them and providing them with a glimpse at traditional Jewish life.

"The Shabbaton is not just a great thing for the students, it's a good thing for the community that's hosting them," said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive director of the Crown Heights-based Chabad on Campus International Foundation. "The community responds so generously because it regards Jewish college students so highly."

To a one, Chabad House directors emphasized that the Shabbaton's focus on Jewish unity as manifested in an intense love and respect of every Jew inspires students to embrace their Jewish heritage in unexpected ways. Even more, those who went in years past encouraged a new batch of students to attend this year.

"For a lot of them, its their first time spending a full Shabbos at a family," said Raizel Brook, co-director of the Chabad House at California State University, Northridge. "And they come back so much more energized about Judaism."

For the 2007 Shabbaton, Brook and her husband, Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, will be leading a delegation of some 20 students.

Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, co-director with wife Elisa Gurevich of the Chabad House at the University of California at Los Angeles and leader of a 22-student strong delegation said that the four students who went last year played a major part in the phenomenal growth in registration.

"It definitely helped that there was a buzz," said the rabbi. "Three out of those four are also coming back."

Jewish Warmth

Among other locations, students at this year's International Student Shabbaton & Conference will visit the Rebbe's resting place in Queens, N.Y.
Among other locations, students at this year's International Student Shabbaton & Conference will visit the Rebbe's resting place in Queens, N.Y.
But while the concert, a slew of Friday night farbrengens, feasts both as a group and at private homes, and talks by acclaimed Chasidic theologians and professors will all likely inspire and entertain the attendants, at least one student was looking forward to the traditional visit to the Queens, N.Y., resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

"Last year, I was really emotional" at the Ohel, shared Natalie Torbacti, a sophomore at Cal State Northridge. "It was kind of breathtaking. Being surrounded by all these people, I felt the actual warmth of the rabbi."

The Rebbe, who passed away in 1994, hosted the first Shabbaton in 1965, known then by its Hebrew moniker, the pegisha. In those days, the Lubavitch Youth Organization ran would bring students to one of the Rebbe's weekly talks, followed by personal meetings between the Rebbe and the collegians.

Because the Rebbe was so central to those early gatherings, and indeed so dedicated to the idea of sending Chabad families to live on campuses and inspire students with a non-judgmental and uncompromising approach to Judaism, a visit to his resting place has always been a high priority among the Shabbaton's organizers.

"It has become a tremendous focal point," reported Rabbi Mendy Fellig, co-director with wife Henchi Fellig of Chabad at the University of Miami, "especially since we don't have the ability to give a special yechidus, or meeting, with the Rebbe.

On the whole, though, Torbacti said that the reason she was returning was that she wanted to learn more about Judaism.

"I really learned a lot with the [Brooks] last year," she said. "I'm not all that religious, and I want to learn more."