CROWN HEIGHTS, Brooklyn — Representing 108 campuses worldwide, hundreds of university students descended on the Jewish community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., for several days of what one participant succinctly described as a dose of spiritual “rejuvenation.”
Alexandra Katz, an English major at the University of Vermont, said that last weekend’s annual Chabad on Campus International Student Shabbaton provided her a jolt of inspiration for her return to campus this week. She described gatherings pervaded by the sound of voices rising in song, participants locked arm-in-arm with neighborhood residents, uplifting Shabbat services at Lubavitch World Headquarters, and a series of lectures, workshops and group discussions on an array of pertinent Jewish topics.
“It is a great feeling to be with all of these Jews, and there is a special energy in Crown Heights,” explained Katz. “I feel rejuvenated to go back to my school, where there are hardly any observant Jews, and be an advocate for Judaism on campus.”
“I feel like my Judaism was sparked again,” echoed Texas A&M University junior Ryan Coane following a Friday afternoon Shabbat candle-lighting ceremony. “It’s inspiring to see other Jews who are proud of and are [engaging] in their Judaism.”
All told, close to 1,000 students joined their campus-based Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries for the Nov. 6-8 weekend. For many of the participants, a highlight of the retreat was eating Friday night dinner at one of many neighborhood homes that opened their doors to the visiting collegians.
“I liked dinner at my hosts’ house,” reflected Jake Mansher, an economics and math major at Baruch College in Manhattan. “Not only was the food great, but the family was very nice and hospitable, being so caring and attentive to each of the 40 strangers they were hosting for Shabbat dinner.”
At various intervals throughout the weekend, Jewish scholars led examinations of such issues as dating, reconciling religious observance with the professional world, legal and medical ethics, and Middle East politics.
At a Shabbat lunch described by some as “electric,” Rabbi Moshe Kotlarksy, chairman of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, told the visiting students the story of an ailing man in a small town to emphasize the importance of keeping Judaism alive on campus.
“My grandfather called it the holy Shabbos,” the man told Kotlarsky from his hospital room. “My father called it Shabbos, I call it Saturday, my son calls it the weekend, and I shudder to think what my grandson will call it, [perhaps] the day before Superbowl Sunday.”
At the end of his talk, Kotlarsky blessed the attendees, wishing them success in their studies and their careers.
“Our goal was to meaningfully enrich the Jewish lives of the participating students, while also empowering them with the tools to pass that knowledge and inspiration on to other students on their campuses,” commented Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus. “We think it was an extremely successful weekend.”
A parallel leadership conference, said attendees, provided Chabad House student leaders with the tools to be an effective advocate for Jewish life on their respective campuses.
“It serves as a catalyst,” remarked Ithaca College senior Zach Klein, who was introduced to the Roitman Chabad Center at nearby Cornell University two years ago. “I feel strongly that I want to do something with what I learned here. Aside from applying everything I learned to my life, I want to help others.”
During the leadership conference, attendees discussed marketing and recruiting strategies, and leadership techniques, and met with prominent leaders of the Jewish community. In addition, philanthropist George Rohr, chairman of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation’s board of governors, led a panel discussion among philanthropists.
“I feel like I’ve gained the skills to move Judaism forward,” said Baruch College junior Yitzy Hoppenstein.
Back at the main retreat – which concluded Sunday with a tour of the Jewish Children’s Museum and a trip to the Cambria Heights resting place of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – Pennsylvania State University senior Bonnie Herman, who had never before attended a large Shabbat gathering outside of her school’s Chabad House, spoke of the unity among fellow students.
“I came looking for a sense of solidarity with other young Jews,” said Herman, “and I was inspired this weekend. This was an amazing forum for bringing us together. All of these people are like matchsticks coming to a source of light. It’s good to know that there are others like me, with questions, looking for answers.”
Added the English major: “I haven’t stopped smiling all weekend.”