Judging by student reactions to the largest-ever gathering hosted by the Chabad on Campus International Foundation in the Brooklyn, N.Y., enclave of Crown Heights, this year’s International Shabbaton and Conference had something for everyone.

Chief among the impressions college students left with was that the neighborhood that has produced so many campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries is a unique and inspiring testament to Jewish life in America.

“Our rabbis and rebbetzins just pop up on our campus, and we don’t really know where they come from or what made them who they are,” said one excited student. “Now we get to see.”

All told, more than 800 students from all over the world signed up for the spiritually-uplifting weekend. The agenda featured a series of talks examining Jewish pride and unity, a rock concert and the chance to live with a Chasidic family. For many, the spiritual highlight came during a visit to the resting place of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

John Basha of Arizona State University found the Saturday night performance of Yood, an Israeli trio of Chasidic Jews who also happen to be rock musicians, to be more than entertaining.

With separate dancing for men and women, “the concert was different than any other I’ve been to,” said John Basha of Arizona State University. “But when they started playing the music and everybody started dancing, there was just so much unity. I had such an awesome time.”

Looking back at the whole Crown Heights experience, University of California, Berkeley student Yonatan Weinberg was amazed.

“On campus, there is hardly [organized] Jewish life,” said Weinberg, “so to come together in such a strong Jewish community and realize the strong effect of the Rebbe’s leadership encourages me to go back to Berkeley and try to make a difference in my small community.”

Keeping students’ reactions in mind, Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, proclaimed this year’s Shabbaton – which was partially sponsored by the Rohr Family Foundation and Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch – not only the largest, but also the most successful.

A college student attending the Shabbaton writes a note to read during prayer at the resting place of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. (Photo: Y. Taichman)
A college student attending the Shabbaton writes a note to read during prayer at the resting place of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. (Photo: Y. Taichman)

“I know many people who talk about their lives being changed after coming here,” said Gordon. “That so many came and were touched by an authentic Jewish weekend is an invigorating affirmation of the innate Jewish pride present on our college campuses.”

Gabe Zinc of Syracuse University found Crown Heights, with its rows of stores closed on Shabbat and thousands of men and women in traditional Jewish dress, to be “a little like Israel, but not quite.”

“In the United States, I would never walk around with a yarmulke on,” continued Zinc. “But in Crown Heights, I felt completely comfortable wearing it. For me that’s a big difference and huge contrast.”

A Powerful Experience

Madison Clavon from the California Institute of Technology said that he found the visit to the synagogue adjacent to Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway to be the trip’s highlight: “The singing, the camaraderie, everyone dancing together, that was amazing!”

Echoed Andrew Stein from the University of Central Florida: “I’ve never seen that many people gathered in one building before, let alone religious people. Pretty impressive.”

Students lit candles before entering the Ohel. (Photo: Y. Taichman)
Students lit candles before entering the Ohel. (Photo: Y. Taichman)

For those who went, the Sunday morning excursion to the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights was an experience of an altogether different kind. Having been primed beforehand by the spiritual nature of the weekend, the crowd of young, hip Jews entered a tent not far from the Rebbe’s resting place – known as the Ohel – to ponder the holiness of the site and the dedication of the Rebbe to each and every Jew.

In the tent, Rabbi Simon Jacobson, founder of the Meaningful Life Center in New York, urged the visitors to write a note to read at the Ohel during prayer to G‑d, a Chasidic custom observed by the tens of thousands of people who visit the site every year.

“Write with a full heart,” said Jacobson, a sought-after speaker on Jewish mysticism.

“You may ask, ‘Why at a gravesite and not in a synagogue?’ ” he continued. “The resting place of a righteous person is sacred ground. The Western Wall in Jerusalem, [where people also read notes during prayer] doesn’t have any power, per se. It isn’t the stones that are important, it’s what they represent.”

In a similar way, “the Rebbe represents a man of G‑d, a man who dedicated his entire life not to himself, but to every single Jew,” said Jacobson. “His resting place is consecrated ground.”

After visiting the Ohel, Andrew Gibbs from the University of Arizona said that it was a powerful experience.

“I realized that this is not a place of mourning,” he said. “The site brought a lot of faith to me.”