It doesn’t happen every day, but students attest that its effects can last a lifetime.

This weekend, more than 800 Jewish college students and recent alumni from across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom will gather in Crown Heights, N.Y., for a unique cultural immersion that has become the highlight of social calendars at scores of campuses. A mix between inspirational discussions, spiritual explorations and good, old-fashioned Shabbat foods like gefilte fish, this year’s seventh annual Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton & Conference will draw delegations from more than 100 universities.

Jesse Morris, 21, from Wellesley College in Boston, emphasizes the social aspect of the Shabbaton.

“This is a great opportunity to share our passions, views and opinions of the world with other Jewish students,” says Morris.

“The college years are a crucial time for young adults to decide what they will value in life,” explains Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. “That’s why it is crucial for us to provide them with meaningful Jewish experiences.”

Partly sponsored by the Rohr Family Foundation and Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, the Shabbaton traces its roots back to student gatherings decades ago in which Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries the world over would bring guests to Crown Heights to attend special addresses by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Today, the Shabbaton draws on those gathering’s hallmark cultural immersions by having local families put up students for lodging and Shabbat meals.

With 50 different lectures and activities, ranging from the more ethereal discussion of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” to an interactive tour of the neighborhood’s groundbreaking Jewish Children’s Museum, the Shabbaton aims to have something for everyone. Each offering, though, plays to the theme of Jewish pride and unity.

The YOOD Power Rock Trio, which will headline this year’s Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton & Conference, played at Texas A&M University in September.
The YOOD Power Rock Trio, which will headline this year’s Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton & Conference, played at Texas A&M University in September.

Inspiration and Rock

“You can’t neglect the spiritual aspect,” says Rabbi Moshe Bleich, co-director of the Wellesley Weston Chabad House, which serves both Babson and Wellesley colleges. “Even those who aren’t looking for spirituality will inevitably encounter it.”

The rabbi relates how after attending a past Shabbaton, one of his male students decided to break off a relationship with his non-Jewish girlfriend.

“It’s impossible to overestimate the effect that being immersed in a Jewish setting has on students,” he stresses. “Even if it’s only for a weekend.”

This year, the Shabbaton will be preceded by the first-ever Chabad on Campus National Leadership Conference, bringing some 50 student leaders from 30 universities to Midtown Manhattan for a leadership-building workshop emphasizing Jewish values.

Harrison Leibow, 20, a communications major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says he’s looking forward to the experience.

“The opportunity to meet other kids in the Jewish community and gain from them to better my own community is really a great thing,” he says.

As in years past, the Shabbaton will host a post-Shabbat concert, this time featuring the up-and-coming YOOD Power Rock Trio, a Chasidic band from Israel.

David Yarrus, 22, a veteran of past Shabbatons, says the weekend is an invaluable experience for any Jewish student.

“The connections, friendships and relationships that come as a result of the Shabbaton [are priceless],” says the Boston-based entrepreneur. “Last year, I met some of the most interesting people I have met in years.”

Morris takes it a step further.

“The youth that will be represented are responsible for our future,” he says. “You can really see how traditions have been passed on through the generations.”

After a pause, Morris adds: “And here we are, and we’re doing the same thing our grandparents and great-grandparents did.”

Leibow agrees.

“To be honest,” he says, “uniting this many teenagers in any area and under any circumstance can only [be positive]. We’re all growing leaders and hopefully, we’ll be able to pass the message of Judaism on for many years to come.”