As a journalism student in the late 1970s, I was given an assignment to write about a minority group. I chose to write about a group far from the mainstream at UC Berkeley. The campus in those days, right after the end of the Vietnam War, was full of freethinkers, dedicated to doing what felt good. The Berkeley Chabad House was a bastion of solid Torah values mixed with an openness to all, as well as delicious Shabbat dinners. Join me in a stroll down memory lane, as we read a shortened version of that feature.

Late Friday afternoon, the sun begins to set behind the San Francisco Bay, turning blue skies to pastel pinks and fiery oranges. The sunset will summon the Orthodox Jews who pray at the Chabad House in Berkeley to begin the observance of Shabbat.

Chabad House, established here five years ago, used to be a fraternity house, and is located in the heart of “frat row” on Piedmont Avenue. Now it is a house of prayer, with offices upstairs for the Chabad staff, and rooms for several male residents downstairs. Outside, a “Chabad” sign adorns the door, and an eight-foot-tall wooden menorah stands proudly on the front porch. To the side of the house is a garden.

As the sun sinks lower, people begin to arrive, alone and in groups, donned in their Sabbath best. Before sunset, a few women light Sabbath candles.

Rabbi Chaim Zev Citron, 29, one of the three Chabad rabbis in Berkeley, pulls a chair up in the front of the main room. People begin to gravitate toward the couches and chairs formed in a semi-circle, to hear Rabbi Citron speak. First, Rabbi Citron asks for questions. They need not deal with the portion of the week, he emphasizes.

“You know,” he says, “harboring a question is a federal offense.”

Everyone smiles, and someone asks a question about different interpretations of the Garden of Eden.

The rabbi pauses, gives several interpretations, jokes a little, and takes on other questions. He is a learned man with a quick sense of humor. One might be surprised at his liveliness, since he gives the appearance of being very serious, with his dark clothing, hat and full beard.

His four-year-old son, Arieh, climbs onto his lap. “What is that?” he inquires, pointing to his father’s wristwatch.

“It’s a watch, Arieh,” the father responds.

“Is it muktzeh (an item that should not be handled on Shabbat)?” Arieh asks with eyes wide.

Upon receiving a negative answer, Arieh goes off to play, and Rabbi Citron realizes it’s time to daven (pray), as the sun has been set for some time.

In the part of the room where the prayer service commences, the men and women are separated by a curtain. It is open at the front, so all can see the rabbi who leads the prayers. The leader is Rabbi Chaim Itche Drizin. He has a beautiful voice, and the congregants rock back and forth as they join him in the singing parts of the service. At one point, all turn around toward the west, to symbolize turning to welcome the Sabbath bride.

After the prayer service, one of the rabbis invites everyone to stay for dinner, and about half of the crowd does. The majority are students. Two are professors with their wives. Most of the crowd is young—under 30. The oldest rabbi is Yosef Langer, 31.

Recently, I was invited to the Citrons. As I had not been observant for long, I was a little nervous, but they made me feel right at home. When I was passed a small cup of kiddush wine, I made the mistake of passing it to the person next to me, as a sign of courtesy to my neighbor. Rabbi Citron smiled as he said, “Our custom is not to pass up a mitzvah, so when you get the cup, you drink and you just send the next one along to your neighbor.”

Surprisingly, I did not feel reprimanded at all. I just felt like here was someone who loved all Jews, who was educating me non-judgmentally.

After Shabbat, I sent the Citrons a thank-you note (a “bread and butter note,” as my mother called it, which for her was obligatory when you went to someone’s home for a meal). The next time I saw Rabbi Citron, he smiled as he said to me, “Your thank-you note was very nice. But please know that although we have many customs, it’s not a custom to send a thank-you note for a Shabbat meal. It’s our pleasure to do the mitzvah of having guests, and you help us to do it!”

Rabbi Yosef Langer is in charge of the Chabad House. He explains that it is run for traditional (Jewish) purposes for non-traditional students. It gives young men a chance to live in a totally Jewish environment while learning about Judaism.

Rabbi Citron explains, “In this day and age, there is a need to reach Jews. We’re so materialistic and secular. Chabad’s response to [this] basic need has to do with theology. We believe that there is an inherent connection with G‑d that can’t be lost, only obscured. Chabad is making a conscious effort to bring Jews back to Judaism. It’s unique in all of Jewry today.”

After dinner, the group breaks up into geographical clans, bound for different directions. Most will return for Saturday morning services, and will stay for lunch, and perhaps will come back for the afternoon class on the portion of the week, followed by the afternoon service, a third meal, the evening service, and finally havdalah, the service which concludes the Sabbath.

The small group that stays through havdalah will exit together. Shabbat is over. The faithful will be back next Shabbat, and the next, and the next.

This was my Berkeley Chabad House experience. For me, the Chabad House helped me keep my commitment to live as an observant Jew. As a busy student, it would have been difficult for me to put together my own Shabbat meals, and I would have not have had the sense of community that was so rich at the Chabad House.

My experience at the Chabad House stays with me, as I myself try to welcome guests to my home for Shabbat who would otherwise not have a place to go. Even all these years later, I remember things I learned from Rabbi Citron and Rabbi Drizin’s wife, Leah. I repeat them at my table.

And when I don’t make it to the synagogue on Friday nights and I pray at home, I sing the old tunes from Berkeley, which are still my favorites.

The rabbis mentioned in this article are no longer at Chabad of UC Berkeley, and have since moved on to other positions.