On a Friday after sunset, you may see students walking up Roosevelt Drive. They pass Stimson and Keller College then continue up the hill until they reach building ‘A’ of West Apartments. They look left and see a tree with Christmas lights wrapped around its trunk. That’s where they enter the woods. They follow a path lined with lights that leads to the front yard of a house.
Rabbi Adam Stein’s house.
Rabbi Adam has been strolling the halls of Stony Brook for 13 years, reaching out to students of the Jewish faith and inviting them into his home for a hot meal, readings from the Torah and lots of singing.
Rabbi Adam and his wife, Esther Stein, co-direct the Chabad Student Center at Stony Brook University, an organization that provides programs to educate and promote Jewish knowledge and awareness. The group provides the means to practice and experience Jewish heritage. Students at Stony Brook refer to Rabbi Adam’s house as the ‘Chabad house,’ a Jewish term for community center.
Before sundown on Friday night, Rabbi Adam sends out a mass text message inviting students to dinner, and every Friday night, around forty students sit around a large U-shaped table in Rabbi Adam’s living room. They are there to celebrate the Sabbath, a time of worship and rest.
When students ring Rabbi Adam’s doorbell, they are usually greeted by one of his eight children and then warmly welcomed by the Rabbi himself, wearing traditional dress; a long beard, black hat and tallis-Fringes or tassels worn by observant Jews as a reminder of the commandments.
The living room seems like a typical family room until you look around and notice something is missing. There is no television, stereo or other electronics. Instead, the walls of the house are filled with pictures of rabbis and shelves of burning candles.
At around 9 p.m. students begin to fill the bright yellow room as the Rabbi and his wife set the table for dinner. A four-course meal is served. Hummus, Challah, rice, chicken and, finally, chocolate cake. Between each course is a heavy serving of singing, chanting and lots of laughter.
“Friday night dinner is a social dinner,” said Rabbi Adam, “It’s a different experiential learning, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Rabbi Adam’s wife cooks all the food that is served to the students, but it is mostly funded by the Chabad Organization with some help from USG. This allows students to have a free meal every Friday, something they say they really enjoy.
Rebecca Safeer, a Sophomore at Stony Brook University, and treasurer of the Chabad Student Club, incorporates the Jewish religion into her college life.
“I wasn’t obligated to attend these events,” said Safeer, “I just enjoyed it, so I kept coming.” The New Jersey native was the first girl to be elected to the Chabad E-board. Safeer has traveled with the club on trips to different universities to celebrate the Sabbath with other students.
“We went to Boston last year,” she said, “And we’re going to Syracuse next weekend. It will be my second trip.” Students who attend Rabbi Adam’s trips travel expense free, affording them the opportunity to meet other students of Jewish heritage.
Rabbi Adam tries to extend dinner invitations not only to Jewish students but also to students interested in learning about Judaism, students like Danielle Early and Tim Cuffman, 22-year-old married graduate students who were both raised Christian and are interested in becoming educated in the religion in hopes of raising their children Jewish.
Early, who was raised in Hungary, feels a connection to the faith. “My family was Jewish but they felt the need to distance themselves from the religion,” Early said, “So I feel like its important for me to learn about it on a personal and academic level.”
Danielle and her husband saw signs advertising educational sessions where students are paid to attend eight lectures based around the teachings and beliefs of Judaism. After calling the number on the flyer, she met Rabbi Adam.
“This is my first time attending a Sabbath,” said Early, “Its great, I feel like I am restoring my Jewish identity.”
Many students who attend Rabbi Adam’s lectures and Friday dinners, also walk a little further through the woods to attend Rabbi David Delaman’s events. Rabbi Dave, as students refer to him, is another rabbi working with students at Stony Brook. He and his wife, Tova, have four children and live in a house similar to Rabbi Adam’s.
Rabbi Dave is the director of the organization, ROOTS (Reaching out for Opportunities in Torah Studies.) The group is connected to the Hillel Center at Stony Brook, an organization that provides a wide variety of activities and opportunities for Jewish students.
Although Rabbi Adam and Rabbi Dave both educate students about the Jewish religion, they have different theologies. Rabbi Dave is Orthodox and, unlike Rabbi Adam, he is not Hasidic.
Rabbi Dave is not your stereotypical Rabbi. He is only 28-years-old, likes cars and listens to some of the same music as his students. He doesn’t have a long beard or wear a tall black hat. He says that these are the things that help him connect with the younger crowd, the things that make him unique.
“I am trying to bring Jewish education to Jewish students,” he said, “I am trying to make a difference.”
Rabbi Dave, who has been at Stony Brook for six years, conducts classes from his home to educate students and recruit them for Birthright, an expense-free trip to Israel for Jewish students. He says he does this because he knows what it is like to be Jewish and not connect to your heritage.
“I’ve been there, I’ve been secular,” he said, “One can lead a fully religious lifestyle and still keep their cool.”
Although Rabbi Adam and Rabbi Dave have slightly different beliefs, they both say they want the same things for their students.
“We both have different theologies and viewpoints but we do our best to work together,” said Rabbi Dave, “We both want peace.”
While there is no exact way to calculate how many students of the Jewish faith attend Stony Brook, according to the Hillel Center, there are an estimated 3000 undergraduates and 1000 graduate students at the university.
“Of that 3000 students we have maybe reached 500,” said Rabbi Dave, “I will continue to open my heart and home to students, and try to get the message out to those who want to be involved.”
As for Rabbi Adam, he leaves the work of spreading the word about his work to the people who know him best: his students.
“Word of mouth,” said Rabbi Adam, “If you come to dinner and you enjoy it, then tell a friend. That’s all I ask.”
Rabbi Adam says he will continue to reach out to students at Stony Brook, as well as host Friday night Sabbaths.
Every Tuesday he can be seen sitting at a table outside of the library’s North Reading Room, talking and laughing with students.
“I spend most of the day here waiting for some of the kids to stop by. I really enjoy doing this,” he said, “Judaism is not a chore; it can be fun and inspirational, you just have to connect.”