In one of the colder and wetter parts of the United States, Jewish students from Western Washington University and the University of Washington bridged the rural distance between them to share some spiritual warmth as they joined to celebrate their first-ever Shabbat together.

The weekend program last month, known informally as the Shabbat of “Jew-nity,” brought together some 80 students from Western Washington in Bellingham and the University of Washington in Seattle, about 80 miles away. Held at the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Whatcom County, it was organized by Western Jewish Gals - a WWU student-run organization - and the Banot women’s group at the Chabad House serving UW. Now, there’s talk of including other area schools in future programming initiatives, mirroring a recent trend that has seen Chabad student groups across the United States host regional Shabbatons with the help of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation. Those in Florida and California are among the largest.

“We wanted to bring our schools together because we really are so close to each other,” said Monica Neiman, 22, who describes her Western Washington Jewish community as “very much like a family.”

But despite the proximity, the Jewish communities at both schools had rarely had contact with each other, save for their members attending the annual Chabad on Campus International Shabbaton & Conference in New York. The turnout for last month’s program was heralded by organizers as groundbreaking for Whatcom County, where anywhere between 300 to 500 Jewish students study at the local university.

“There was a need for a Shabbaton so that we could convene and get to know fellow Jews from other parts of the region,” said Rahmin Buckman, a 25-year-old sports psychology graduate student at Western Washington.

JB Maxwell, a 22-year-old undergraduate at the University of Washington, said that the gathering last month was a welcome change of pace for someone who has recently taken on more Jewish practices.

The demands of keeping kosher and Shabbat can, at first, “often be very daunting,” said Maxwell. “So the need to ‘spice’ things up, meet new people, get out and have fun is very important to me.”

Some 80 students attended the weekend gathering.
Some 80 students attended the weekend gathering.

Just the Beginning

Originally, Western Jewish Gals, which is headed by Neiman, intended for the weekend to be open to just female students.

“We wanted to promote our sisterhood with a sister school,” said Neiman, who is studying to be an elementary teacher.

But after everyone got excited about the idea, organizers from the club and their counterparts at Banot – the name comes from the Hebrew word for “daughters” – agreed that it would be better to open the invitations to everyone. As part of the preparations, the groups planned the menu, arranged lodging for the visitors, developed programming, cooked the meals, and coordinated separate religious services for the men and women.

“What is so amazing and remarkable is that the big school went to the small school,” said Hadassah Backman, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Whatcom County. “I’m still blown away by the success of it all.”

According to Maxwell, who is majoring in political science and Arabic, the weekend brought together “two very similar groups that hardly, if at all, knew each other. It was amazing to meet such similar people to share Shabbat with.”

Neiman said that she and Backman have already started drawing up plans for another Shabbaton with students from the University of British Columbia just across the border with Canada.

“Western is halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, so there is no reason why we shouldn’t try and get together,” said Neiman.

Energized by the recent weekend, students are also hoping to share other activities together. Maxwell, for instance, would like to run a skiing trip for Jewish students in the region. And the male students from both schools have already resolved to play football games together once a month.

“It’s small things like that that really unify the students,” said Chaya Estrin, director of the Chabad House serving the University of Washington. “They can see the benefits of each community and then bring what they find meaningful into their own.”

For her part, Backman was touched by the students’ dedication and hospitality, which included one woman putting up seven female visitors.

“It was inspiring how the students got involved and made it happen,” said Backman. “They are so welcoming.”