Megaphones served as centerpieces and pom-poms dotted the room, as if imploring a passer-by to pick one up and sound out a cheer, encouraged by pennants from different schools adorning the walls. If this weren’t enough to put attendees in the university spirit, a marching band kicked off the evening’s program with pomp and circumstance—and some very resplendent trumpets.
The 350 people who attended the 10th Annual Chabad Founders Dinner of Chabad Lubavitch of Camden & Burlington Counties in New Jersey on June 11 got a real taste of student spirit at an event that put a spotlight on Chabad’s efforts on 10 different college campuses.
Participants celebrated the accomplishments of their local Chabad Houses and, by extension, Chabad Houses everywhere, honoring the vision of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
The program recognized several community members and also included speeches from two students who have been significantly affected by Chabad on Campus. A Sinai Scholars Society video was also shown about the coursework program that seeks to engage college students with their Judaism.
Honorees Donny and Etti Oettinger, and Ari and Natalie Ohnona have been active with Chabad since Rabbi Mendel Mangel and his wife, Dinie, started the center 20 years ago. Michael and Tamara Kline, the third couple to be honored, became more recently involved over the last few years.
In that time, the Chabad center has grown from a little storefront to a facility now bursting at the seams in its current space, said Mangel. Its next project aims to double its size from its current 12,000 square feet.
Among other offerings, it is home to a successful Hebrew school, summer camp, teen programs, adult-education classes and a synagogue that brings a minyan together three times a day, seven days a week, and draws an average of 150 people each Shabbat. Jewish residents and guests can also make the most of a brand-new mikvah—Mikvah Mei Shifta—with separate facilities for men and women.
While the guests showed up to support their local Chabad, Mangel said he hopes they came away with an even broader perspective on Chabad’s work. “I want them to appreciate the Rebbe’s love and concern for every Jew,” he said. “And the best way is for them to see the impact of Chabad Centers around the world.”
‘Changed My Life’
Ashley Reich, a recent college graduate from Marlton, N.J., spoke about her experiences at West Virginia University and then Stockton College. During her first semester at West Virginia University, she said she received a message from Rabbi Zalman Gurevitz, inviting her to Shabbat dinner. She passed on that, but given his persistence, decided to go a different week.
“That first Shabbat dinner forever changed my life,” she said. She told the crowd about lighting Shabbat candles for the first time and “talking for hours” with the rabbi’s wife, Hindy. “From that moment on, I was completely hooked.”
Reich grew in her involvement until she became student president of Chabad on Campus at West Virginia. She also helped out with the Hebrew school, though she had never attended one herself.
Her observance eventually became a family affair. Her sister now attends Chabad’s Hebrew school in Cherry Hill, and her family goes to holidays and Shabbat dinners at Chabad. “Chabad has brought a newfound sense of Judaism into my family’s home,” said Reich.
Drexel University sophomore Lyssia Katan then took to the stage to speak about her freshman year in Philadelphia, when she happened to meet a Shliach while he was handing out challah one day on Greek Row.
Chabad became her “home away from home,” she said, talking about how the rabbi and his wife, have helped her continue traditions she grew up with, as well as participate in new Jewish experiences.
“L’chaim to a family for you here in Cherry Hill, a family for your children when they’re away at college, and a family anywhere in the world—waiting to embrace you with open arms and loving hearts,” declared Katan.
‘It’s Right There’
Randi Stoopler, chair of the dinner, explained that the planning started in August, with a group of committee members focused on picking a theme that would provide a different perspective on Chabad’s work. Last year, they focused on its global reach, she said, adding that “most people who came didn’t realize that there were Chabad Houses literally around the world.”
This year, they turned to another aspect of the movement’s attention.
“People don’t realize what Chabad does on campus, so just to have another eye-opening aspect of the critical work they do—not just in our own small community, but beyond”—was important, said Stoopler. “There’s so much work to be done and it pays off, as shown by these two young women we had speak.”
Arnie Staloff, a returning member of the dinner committee, noted that he was impressed by how extensive Chabad has become on college campuses and by how many vital services it offers.
It fits right into their lives, he said: “It’s right there, and students can hit the ground running. From that perspective, at least, they can feel like they never left their home communities.”