With more than 850 guests, Tulane University's recent Shabbat 1000 event tentatively earned the title of the largest Shabbat dinner in Louisiana history.

Addressing the students who had packed the basketball court of the Student Recreation Center, university president Scott Cowen noted that a little more than two years prior, the gym was the staging area for rescuers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"He talked about the profound influence that the Jewish tradition has had on his life, emphasizing the strong focus on serving the community," said Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, co-director of Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at Tulane. "He pointed out that many of the Jewish students had come to New Orleans because of their desire to serve in the wake of Katrina."

Typically, the Chabad-Lubavitch center on campus sees around 100 guests each week at its dinner table; its mega Shabbat event this semester was a chance to "bring many types of Jews and people together for a single, unified effort," said Warren Cohn, president of the Chabad student board at the university.

Funded by the Chabad Jewish Student Center, the dinner received assistance from the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Greater New Orleans and the campus Hillel. Staff from the local Casablanca Restaurant, a kosher establishment, helped students and Chabad House staff prepare the meal.

Part of a nationwide series of large Shabbat dinners facilitated by the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, the dinner, said officials, continues a great tradition begun by the Chabad House at Binghamton University in 1996.

"The growth of the Tulane Jewish community since the hurricane's devastation is remarkable," said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. "This dinner is proof positive of that fact."

For Rivkin, the event gave an opportunity to hundreds of students to perform the mitzvahs associated with Shabbat, such as lighting Shabbat candles and making Kiddush.

"A place is always set for them at the Shabbat table," remarked the rabbi, who co-directs the Chabad House with wife Sarah Rivkin.

Tulane University students try their hand at baking one of hundreds of challah rolls before the Shabbat 1000 dinner organized by the campus’ Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center.
Tulane University students try their hand at baking one of hundreds of challah rolls before the Shabbat 1000 dinner organized by the campus’ Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center.
In order to ensure maximum attendance, the dinner's planning committee employed various forms of publicity, from the more traditional posting of flyers on campus bulletin boards to the modern practice of placing ads on the Facebook networking Web site. Some 100 students – who represented a cross section of Jewish campus life, coming from different dormitories, Greek organizations and the university's different schools – took on the responsibility of bringing 10 other students, a feat organizers hope to fully accomplish next year.

Whitney Silverman, a planning committee member, attested to the event's strength at unifying the student body.

"It showed that many people can be involved in such a large event," said Silverman, who helped bake some of the 1,000 small challah rolls for the dinner. "It showed that one does not have to have an extensive background or knowledge of Jewish law, religion, or customs to be an integral part of a successful and meaningful Jewish event.

"Shabbat dinner has something for everyone," she added. "It can be instrumental in building one's Jewish identity and the identity of the student community as a whole."

Cohn, who organized the shopping runs, as well as much of the evening's program, saw added meaning in the fact the dinner occurred in the Deep South.

"It is kind of unusual [here] to have such a large Jewish gathering," he asserted. "And it was so nice to see us bring some spirituality to the [basketball court]."

Thanks to programs such as Shabbat 1000, Silverman now plans to remain involved in Jewish life after graduation. Top on her list, she said, is organizing smaller-sized dinners for friends and family.

"Shabbat 1000 was special because at its core, it brought hundreds of Jewish students together, to sit in the same place at the same time and share dinner, company and conversation," she said.

"If it only touched one person, I think we did our job," added Cohn. "But students were very into the event, and got involved and excited. That's something to be extremely proud of."