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Chabad draws Gators

Boaz Dvir – Sun Sentinel

Center credited with boosting Jewish activity.

R. Berel Goldman with a group of students

Every Friday night during the fall and spring semesters, 250 Gators trade chicken wings and Miller Light for chicken soup and Manischewitz at Rabbi Berl Goldman’s house near the University of Florida.

Most of them are not religious; nor are they the geeks you’d expect to find at a rabbi’s house on a Friday night. They look more like fraternity brothers hosting a group of sorority sisters, or vice versa.

A few years ago, this scene would have been a mirage in the Jewish culture desert. Young Jews wanted little to do with Judaism. But today, they show a growing appetite for spiritual and cultural connectivity.

The students say they feel a sense of belonging as soon as they enter Goldman’s house, which doubles as UF’s Chabad Center.

“There’s a home atmosphere here,” said Effi Paris, a finance student who serves as a cultural liaison at the university for the international outreach organization Jewish Agency.

On a recent Friday night, the rabbi holds up a copy of a local club-scene magazine featuring photos of scantily clad women, and asks the students why they chose Chabad over other social options.

As if to answer his own question, Goldman then speaks passionately about a central Judaic tenet: that every Jew, regardless of level of observance, stands equal before God and the Jewish community. When he finishes, he wipes the sweat from his forehead with his prayer shawl and the students jump to their feet to applaud.

They chant Hebrew prayers with more passion than linguistic precision, then sing Ain’t Gonna Work on Saturday. They also wash their hands ritually before eating, using an embossed silver Judaica mug. And they don’t speak until the rabbi blesses the wine and challah.

Goldman has one of the most successful college programs by Chabad Lubavitch, a movement of Hasidic Judaism. The Brooklyn-based organization follows the motto, “Wherever there’s Coca Cola, there’s Chabad.”

Chabad Lubavitch runs thousands of satellites around the world, including more than 40 centers at American universities. And UF has 6,000 Jewish students, the most of any state school in the United States.

Besides connecting to their Jewish roots, the students get involved to have a good time, make friends and maybe meet potential romantic partners.

“People come back because they realize this is a nonjudgmental environment,” said Myriam Kramer, past president of Chabad’s student-run board.

The rabbi is 33, but his thick beard and jolly demeanor make him seem like the students’ grandfather. He makes sure everyone is eating, drinking and having fun. He urges them to mingle with the opposite sex and offers to hold free weddings for those who meet under his roof.

He periodically holds all-you-can-eat sushi buffets at the center. He orders kosher seaweed from New York.

He also stages Stop ‘n’ Go Jew Date Nights, during which students bid on each other to raise money for the center.

To run the center, Goldman raises $210,000 annually, most of it from South Florida Jews, he says. Even during the High Holy Days, when most rabbis raise most of their funds, he avoided asking the students to give.

“With students,” he says, “I never know who can afford it.”

Goldman always dreamed of starting a Chabad center; he just never imagined it would be in Gainesville. Two other Chabad shlichim, or emissaries, had turned down this post. And when he visited the city six years ago, “there was not one observant Jew in sight,” he said.

But he liked the Jews he met and decided to give it a try. His efforts have not only helped create a growing center, but jump-started Jewish activity in Gainesville.

Leaders at Hillel, the national Jewish student organization that recently built an $8.5 million center across from UF’s basketball arena, credit Goldman’s efforts and success with helping to boost participation in their programs as well.

Many of the students at Chabad will become successful doctors, attorneys, politicians, filmmakers and business people. Their experience here is bound to influence their cultural and even political outlooks.

So in coming decades, expect a shift to more conservative values in the Jewish community. But don’t expect these students to become ultra-Orthodox.

After Friday night dinner, they leave the prayer books and yarmulkes behind. They return to their secular lifestyles, eat non-kosher food and, despite what they sang earlier, work on jobs or school assignments on Saturday.

Goldman knows this; yet he remains upbeat, repeating his slogan, “We’re bringing Judaism out of the closet.”

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