When Dan Singerman started out at Penn State University three years ago, he was “not too identified,” religiously. Raised conservative in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dan embarked on a spiritual quest during his first years at college, searching for meaning on a campus where most of the Jewish student body (4,000) was largely unaffiliated. After experimenting with Buddhism and dabbling in other eastern religions, Dan eventually came full circle, back to Judaism. Still, Dan felt something missing—an enthusiasm and spiritual component that he felt should go hand in hand with the faith of his heritage just seemed lacking.
Then Rabbi Nosson and Sarit Meretzky set up a Chabad student center at PSU, last September, and according to Dan, “changed the landscape on campus.” It was here, after attending Shabbat services where he found the Rabbi “pounding on the podium, singing the prayers to beautiful tunes, and creating a lively, exciting atmosphere,” that Dan finally felt his Jewish enthusiasm surface.
Dan lost no opportunity participating at Chabad functions, learning privately with Rabbi Meretzky and joining group classes on Parsha and Chasidic thought. The classes, he says, have provided an ideal channel for spiritual growth. As president of the Chabad Student Club, Dan has the job of coming up with exciting ideas for events that will draw hundreds of students and help them establish a strong Jewish identity on a campus where being Jewish was previously a non-issue.
Back in the sixties when Dr. Yacov Hanoka was a student here, four years of college often left students feeling even less Jewishly identified than when they had come. For Yacov, then Jack, things weren’t very different; a graduate student from an unaffiliated home in New Jersey, Hanoka had read books on Judaism, even on Chasidism, but much like everything else spiritual, their relevancy was peripheral. But unlike dozens of his peers, Hanoka, it turns out, would not become a statistic of intermarriage and assimilation. Instead, his life would take an unexpected turn all because of a single Shabbos on campus in September of 1961.
Hanoka came across a flyer about several young Chabad rabbinical students who would be spending Shabbos at Hillel, with an invitation encouraging students to join. The event aroused Jack’s interest–Chabad sounded like a curiosity item, and he decided to attend. After a Friday night that left him feeling inspired by the authentic warmth of Chasidic song and melody, he returned the following day for a Chasidic farbrengen that lasted well into the evening.
Along with some others Jack rode to the train station late that Saturday night to see the young men off, and there, on the platform they danced and sang to the words of a famous Chasidic melody “Save your nation, bless your portion. . . .”
The young men had left to Brooklyn, but back on campus Jack felt something had been kindled inside of him and he approached his Hillel rabbi seeking guidance. The rest, says Dr. Hanoka, is history. After a private meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yacov followed the Rebbe’s advice to him, completing his semester at the university, and spending a year studying in Crown Heights. And when the Rebbe insisted that he return to the university and earn his doctorate, saying “you will do more for Yiddishkeit with three initials after your name,” Hanoka had to comply.
That one Shabbos with Chabad at the Hillel House back in 1961 has had a lifelong impact, and today, Yacov Hanoka and his wife Bina are the proud parents and grandparents of Shluchim who devote their lives reaching out the Jewish people.
After that Shabbos at PSU, Chabad would become an active presence on campuses across the country, with Chabad student centers sprouting up on campuses nationwide. But despite the fact that the precedent had been set here, Penn State “remained one of the largest residential campuses without a Chabad House,” says Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, Chabad representative to UPENN and a member of a board that oversees Chabad activities on campus.
According to Rabbi Schmidt, “the inconveniences presented by a campus town far from any metropolitan area, with basic amenities like kosher food and a mikvah not easily accessible made establishing Chabad here a challenging proposition.” The Meretskys, says Rabbi Schmidt, who recruited them, “willingly stepped up to the challenge, and have already made tremendous strides in suffusing the campus with Jewish life and activity.”
There is some resistance to the advent of Yiddishkeit on campus, but the Meretskys are working hard “to heighten the level of Jewish knowledge and awareness on the campus, and to spread the message that this is for all Jewish students, regardless of affiliation,” says Rabbi Meretsky.
Already, the new facilities purchased this past spring thanks to the generous support of the George Rohr Family Foundation, are bursting at the seams and Chabad is hoping to expand. Close to forty students frequent the center for Friday night services and dinner, and some 15 girls have joined Sarit’s WOW (women of worth) club where students enjoy activities like yoga with a Jewish spin. Rabbi Meretsky meets with several students weekly for a coffee and Kabballah class at a store on campus, and ten students regularly attend the Thursday evening pizza Parsha party.
From the virulent anti-war protests of the 60’s to the carefree partying of the new millineum, the Jewish student body at PSU, although doubled in size, remained an otherwise largely unchanged, unaffiliated and disconnected entity here on campus. Now, for the first time in PSU’s history, Jewish life has finally found a home here.