More than 700 students from 101 college campuses spanning five countries made a weekend home in the Chasidic neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., for the sixth annual International Student Shabbaton & Conference. By all accounts, the venture, a project of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, closed as a rising success in energizing students' Jewish involvement and showing them the human face of an observant Jewish community.

From the Shabbaton’s base at the former Brooklyn Jewish Center, which houses the area’s largest ballroom and conference rooms, the attendees – who who came with the Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins from their local Chabad on Campus chapters – discussed everything from the importance of dating and marrying a fellow Jew to Chasidic thought and the challenge of maintaining one's personal identity in the modern world.

Participants held services at the world-famous synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, where the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, would pray and hold court. Crown Heights households opened their doors to the visitors, providing them with beds to sleep on and spots at the Shabbat dinner table. Saturday night, students celebrated the close of Shabbat with a concert in a jam-packed ballroom where audience members danced in separate circles of men and women.

Talia Saxe, a Charlotte, N.C., native and freshman at Duke University, said that she made the trek in order to see the environment from which Rabbi Zalman and Yehudis Bluming set out to move to the Tar Heel State.

"I love my shluchim," said Saxe, using the Hebrew word adopted by Lubavitchers to refer to the Rebbe's emissaries.

The experience, she affirmed, was worth it.

"It's very different actually being here from reading about it," said Saxe. "It's [nice] to come and see New York in a different way."

For his part, Zalman Bluming, co-director of Chabad of Durham/Chapel Hill and Duke University, explained that he wanted Saxe and his other students to experience a Shabbat unlike the ones spent on campus.

In Crown Heights, "they realize that Chabad is part of a national, vibrant, youthful group and is much larger than just our synagogue," he said. "I think my students will come out rich and [feeling] alive."

Indeed, at the Shabbaton, students – for whom the Chabad rabbi may be the only full-bearded black-hat wearing Jew for miles around – enjoyed a rare opportunity to see how a vibrant Jewish community functions.

French student Elodie Resseguie, a junior English major at the University of California at Berkeley, said that she was struck by the sheer numbers: "It's nice to see so many people davening," Yiddish for praying, "together at once."

Bracha Sara Leeds, co-director with her husband, Rabbi Gil Yosef Leeds, of the Chabad Jewish Student Center serving UC Berkeley, said that she saw her students' notions of what "normal" is changing after just the little time spent in Crown Heights. They began to realize that their rabbi "actually fit in somewhere," she explained, as opposed to being on the fringe.

Best-Ever Conference

The Shabbaton provided students with an abundance of opportunities for Jewish self-discovery.
The Shabbaton provided students with an abundance of opportunities for Jewish self-discovery.
New to the Shabbaton this year was a leadership forum where student leaders of campus Chabad Houses could network and strategize.

Davita Mabourakh, student president at the Chabad House serving the University of Florida, said that she benefited from the give and take with the 70 other leaders from across the United States.

"I gave ideas to other Chabad Houses and they gave to me," said Mabourakh, a junior event management and business administration major. "I was able to speak with students from the other schools for ideas on how to plan events.

"Students from other schools," she added, "offered to help me and even come to the 1,800-person Gator Shabbos" in the works at the Gainesville, Fla., school.

But while bigger and better, a feature of any planning session in almost every industry, was the order of the day, Mabourakh said that the overall goal was to reach every single Jew on their level, without judgment.

"Students here are very friendly and open," she said. "No matter your level of Judaism, anyone can appreciate the trip."

Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive director of Chabad on Campus, proclaimed the Shabbaton the best yet.

"This was the most grand weekend I've ever seen," said the Brooklyn-based Gordon. "I was inspired by the students and hope that they will be an inspiration back on campus."

Joined by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Chabad on Campus, who addressed the students Shabbat afternoon – organizers expressed gratitude and condolences to the Rohr family, whose matriarch, Mrs. Charlotte Rohr, passed away last week. The family has long supported Chabad on Campus initiatives, both through their guidance and financial commitments.

At the end of the weekend, University of Colorado sophomore Jeremy Darling, said he was leaving New York enlightened from his short visit.

"I realized that you can still be who you are," and go to Chabad, he said. The Shabbaton "helps you to understand yourself. It's a mission of self-discovery."