(lubavitch.com) “Spending Shabbat with my Chabad friends is always a blessing,” said Dr. Jeffrey Knapp, director of the Academy for the Art of Teaching at Florida International University. “It’s the best way to celebrate the close of a week.” Knapp is one of more than 4,000 Jewish faculty and students at FIU that benefit from a colorful range of programs and services offered by Chabad at Florida International University.
But two weeks ago, Shabbat with Chabad was not at its usual venue. Instead, students and faculty were hosted at the home of FIU’s president, Dr. Mark B. Rosenberg. The occasion: Chabad campus representative Rabbi Levi Friedman’s 30th birthday.
“The Rabbi and his wife are recognized community leaders, as well as good friends,” said Rosenberg, who presented the Chabad representative with a gift on behalf of the university’s faculty and students. “I value their presence at FIU and community events.”
The Chabad Jewish Student Center at FIU, known as the Tabicinic Chabad House, was founded by Rabbi Levi and his wife, Sashie, in August of 2004. By the time the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at FIU, became its president–the Friedmans were well acquainted with him.
“With the relationship we have and the President’s strong desire to personally engage the students–we knew that hosting Shabbat dinner at his home was just the sort of setting the president and his wife would love,” Friedman said. “That approachable attitude is one of the things students love most about him.”
So on Friday evening January 22, as Shabbat descended upon South Florida, students and faculty arrived at the Ronald Reagan Presidential House, the president’s residence on FIU’s campus. Some 45 guests were greeted by their hosts, Dr. Mark and Rosalie Rosenberg, and led to long tables decked out with a traditional, formal Shabbat kosher dinner.
The evening began with the recitation of the Kiddush by Friedman’s father, Rabbi Yosef B. Friedman, who had arrived from New York with his wife, Sheine, for the event. Dr. Knapp followed by leading the hamotzie. Past student presidents of Chabad FIU, Aaron Margolis, and Sholom Neistein who now serves as president of the Student Government Association at the Biscayne Bay Campus, joined the dinner. Maxime Komornik, representing the student body, delivered a talk on the weekly Torah portion.
During the dinner, Dr. Rosenberg asked all the guests to introduce themselves. Students shared their own sentiments of appreciation for Chabad at FIU as their home away from home, and spoke of the Friedmans’ support and friendship they have come to cherish.
Virginie Illouz, a Jewish student from Haiti, spoke of her gratitude to the Chabad House, calling it a “lively hub” where she met so many of the people she counts as friends today. Guests were moved to tears as she described how the earthquake in her hometown affected her and her family, and the comfort she found with Chabad.
In a talk delivered with his signature humor, Rabbi Friedman thanked the president and his wife for hosting this special dinner, and praised the president’s profound commitment to the student population of FIU.
Most meaningful to them, say both Levi and Sashi, was the birthday gift from the students: a box containing small notes of the mitzvot each student committed to in honor of the Rabbi’s birthday.
Rita Ritvin, an Israeli born FIU student was excited to be included in the Shabbat dinner. “The party felt very intimate even with about 50 people there! I felt very honored to have been invited to this event,” she said, pointing out that her affiliation with Chabad at FIU goes back three years. “The Rabbi, his wife and their beautiful children have become really good friends of mine,” she boasted.
Her favorite thing about the Friedmans, she said, is their Jewish spirit. “I’ve learned not only about the mitzvot, but also that I can come as I am and be a part of something great, both on a spiritual and physical level.”