Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, Jewish students at the University of Albany joined alumni, parents, university officials and community members to dedicate the just-completed Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center. The 13,000 square-feet facility, which includes a professional kitchen and seating for hundreds, replaces a two-bedroom house that, despite its size, managed to pack in upwards of 180 students for bi-weekly Shabbat dinners.

With a pledge to never turn away students hungry for food and inspiration, Shabbos House, as the center is known to the thousands of students, faculty members and alumni who’ve walked through its doors, first opened in 1976 under the direction of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yisroel and Rochel Rubin. Their son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Mendel and Raizy Rubin, took over operations of the center 12 years ago, welcoming about 25 students for their first Friday night Shabbat dinner.

But as word spread, more and more students flocked to the Rubins’ modest home, drawn by their warmth and spiritual outlook.

“They make students feel like they’re part of their family, part of the Shabbos House family,” said alumna Farrah Fidler. “You have this whole extended family; it’s a warm and beautiful thing.”

Prior to Sunday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, a typical Friday night for the Rubins involved squeezing in excess of 150 students into 700 square feet of usable space in their living room. Each week, student volunteers moved the couches to a deck outside to make space for additional tables. Several years ago, students built a shelter over the deck to protect the furniture from the rain and snow. Inside, visitors sat on benches, the Rubins figuring out long ago that chairs just don’t fit.

When the crowd got really large, five of the Rubins’ six children retired to their room, which doubled as the laundry-room and additional food preparation area, to eat their meal.

As tight as it was, the students felt like there was always space for more.

“I don’t know how [the house] expanded so much,” recounted graduate student Sheryl Hoffman, who spoke at a ceremony last year celebrating the laying of the cornerstone for the new building.

Alumnus Shaun Zeitlin likened the house to the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, which tradition says miraculously expanded without changing its physical dimensions.

“It got to the point that some of the key students who were really involved were waiting until the end to eat,” said Fidler. “It was crazy. Everyone wanted to be there.

“And Raizy and Mendel never ever turned away a student.”

Fidler, 27, was inspired by the Rubins’ dedication that she nominated the couple as Jewish Community Heroes in a Web-based contest run by United Jewish Communities. They currently occupy fourth place in online voting.

Sheryl Hoffman addresses attendees of last year’s cornerstone-laying ceremony.
Sheryl Hoffman addresses attendees of last year’s cornerstone-laying ceremony.

Like Home

Featuring a lobby, two-storey main hall, several kitchens, student lounge and office, as well as a guest suite and apartment for the Rubins, the new building sits just a short walk from the old Shabbos House.

“It’s gorgeous, it’s exactly what we needed,” said Hoffman, 22, who looks forward to cooking and baking in the new kitchens.

Even though she graduated five years ago, Fidler, now a freelance publisher and social media consultant in Queens, said that she plans to join everyone for the holiday of Simchat Torah in a couple of weeks.

“One of my oldest and most beautiful memories of Shabbos House [is of] Mendel and Raizy bringing out nosh, singing songs and telling stories,” said Fidler. “I feel something very special about that.”

After a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony, the estimated 400 celebrants paraded the institution’s Torah scroll from the old building to a special cabinet, known in Hebrew as an aron kodesh, in the new center.

Hoffman’s father, Stephen Hoffman, built the cabinet as a tribute to his father, who passed away a few months ago.

“The building is so beautiful [and corresponds to] my style of woodworking and carpentry: very plain and simple,” said Hoffman. “My father was a very unassuming man. I think he’d appreciate just being there.”

For his part, Mendel Rubin said that he wants to ensure that Shabbos House – which in addition to its meals, hosts holiday carnivals, Torah classes, a women’s club and a challah-baking club – still feels like a home. The couches, he noted, moved inside.

“We really want to try to keep that atmosphere,” said the rabbi.

Hoffman, a cultural history major who first went to a dinner at Shabbos House in 2005 and last year, organized a Purim carnival for more than 300 students, said that she already has dreams for the future.

“My only hope,” she stated, “is that we also outgrow this building.”