Fall breezes have started to nip at the noses of students across campus, and for the first time in months, windows close to the cold outdoors.
The atmosphere inside the Chabad House, located at 1121 University Ave., remains vibrant. The packed dining room is warm, and the air is buzzing with chatter and excitement.
It’s the first Shabbat dinner of the semester at Chabad, and about 50 students have gathered to eat together and celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath in the traditional Jewish fashion.
Rabbi Yitzi Steiner and his wife Chavi — the hosts of the evening — are a young, orthodox Jewish couple who turned the former sorority house off of Tenth Avenue into a “home away from home” for Jewish students on campus three years ago.
An important time of year for Chabad is rapidly approaching. The Jewish new year — Rosh Hashanah — begins on Sept. 16. Traditionally, this holiday is a solemn time for reflection and requires long hours spent listening to services.
The rabbi explained this traditional observance of Rosh Hashanah can be boring for students; and at Chabad, services will be interactive and faster paced.
Some students may be unfamiliar and at first intimidated by the Steiners’ practices. Chavi Steiner said, “We may seem scary — Yitzi has his big beard. I wear a skirt.”
Although the Steiners are traditional in every sense of the word (they keep kosher, dress in traditional clothing and strictly observe the Jewish calendar), they strive to make their home a place where anyone will feel at ease.
Student attendee Judy Mizrachi compared campus to the anarchic setting of “The Lord of the Flies” and recognized Chabad as a special oasis from that intensity.
“It’s getting a break — like going home,” Mizrachi said.
Dinner on Friday began with the lighting of the Shabbat candles right at sundown to mark the beginning of the Sabbath, but students straggled in for the next twenty minutes and took whatever empty places they could find at the two long, full tables.
Once everyone was seated, whoever was willing to sing joined in several verses of blessings as challah bread, taro chip salad, caesar salad, gefilte fish and sesame noodles were passed around.
Those who didn’t sing or help serve discussed a wide variety of topics ranging from pro-Israel activism and days of youth spent in Hebrew school to bad dates with frat boys and which bar in Dinkytown has the best “power hour.”
Amid courses of chicken soup, spiced potatoes, baked baby carrots, kugel (a traditional Jewish noodle dish) and baked chicken, several students said “L’Chaim” or toasts. (L’Chaim means “to life” in Hebrew.) These short speeches were dedicated to family members that had passed away, the value of differences and most importantly, the celebration everyone was attending.
Yitzi Steiner said strong ties to faith and good food draw people to Chabad, but the true pull lies in the desire to connect with others and their faith and celebrate together.
The familial atmosphere has even drawn some non-Jewish students to the table. Religious Studies senior Sarah Tate first attended a service at Chabad for one of her classes. She enjoyed her visit so much that she has been attending Chabad events regularly ever since.
She said our hosts saw no reason to exclude her based on her religion.
“As much as they pour themselves into everyone else, they poured [their hearts] into me, too,” Tate said.
After another round of singing and dessert, students began to depart for their Friday nights out. The boys made sure to shake hands with Yitzi, and Chavi hugged all the girls goodbye.
In the true spirit of the self-proclaimed “campus mum,” Chavi said of her Shabbat dinner, “We make it a time where it doesn’t distract people from going to the bars, but now they can go on a full stomach.”