At its Feb. 10 gala dinner in a large hall at Lexington Chabad House, nearly 100 Brandeis University students raised more than $30,000 for the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center at Brandeis University.

Run by Rabbi Peretz and Chanie Chein out of their home across the street from campus, the Chabad House operates on a shoestring budget, hosting crowded weekly Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations, and offering a series of classes as part of its iLearn series, which regularly draw some 90 students.

The gala was a first for the Chabad House, which was established in 2001. All proceeds raised from the event will fund operating expenses, such as the cost of food and a modest salary for the Cheins. There is a small fee for the popular classes offered at the house throughout the week in which a reported 90 students are currently enrolled.

"Chabad House is independently funded, and we receive no major contributions from donors or institutions," said Chein, whose students address him by his first name. "The people we serve don't have the ability to support our costs, and that makes fundraising extremely challenging."

Relying only on small donations from people who regularly come to the Chabad House, Chein said the house has operated under a deficit over the last few years. The gala itself was conceived and planned entirely by seniors Cindy Kaplan and Yael Klein with help from other students, including sophomore Lily Namanworth.

Despite the ice storm that night, close to 100 people attended the fundraiser, paying the rather steep price of $180 a ticket. In addition to the $31,000 raised, someone reportedly made an additional pledge of $20,000.

What's the attraction?

Chanie Chein, right, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center at Brandeis University, and one of her student leaders
Chanie Chein, right, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center at Brandeis University, and one of her student leaders

Students said that they’re drawn to the Chabad House because of the Cheins' dedication.

"We love Chanie and Peretz," said Namanworth. "Every Friday, there's a dinner at their house with something like 150 people. They're constantly giving to us and being there for the students."

"Everyone feels special and important," said Chein, 32. "We're engaging, [we] speak to important issues, and people of all backgrounds feel comfortable here."

The rabbi explained that in coming to campus seven years ago, he and his wife decided to concentrate their efforts on students not traditionally served by the mix of on-campus programs.

"When Chabad arrived, we created a different model and attracted those who were not engaged," said Chein. The model starts with a "principle belief in the innate value of every Jew regardless of, not despite, their current level of engagement and observance."

He said his goal and responsibility is to move everyone who walks through his door forward from where they were before: "As long as they're moving forward, the individual answer is different for everybody."

Senior Cindy Jacobs said she's been going to the house for Shabbat dinner and classes since her sophomore year

"I hadn't been happy at other places I'd gone before, and a friend told me about Chabad," Jacobs said. "I've never had the experience where I could consider a rabbi a friend. Peretz and Chanie are amazing. Their door is always open and it's a place where I can be the kind of Jew I want to be.

"It's important to have an anchor and somewhere to go that feels like home."