Minutes to midnight on University of Pennsylvania’s fraternity row, as the ‘Sox were on their way to trouncing the Astros in overtime, the guys at Sigma Nu got a knock at the door. It wasn’t the pizza guy. Chabad of UPenn’s Rabbi Levi Haskelevich and Rabbi Ephraim Levin offered the frat a chance to dance with the Torah in honor of the Simchat Torah holiday.
“In Chasidic philosophy, Simchat Torah propels you into the rest of the year,” said Chabad on Campus executive committee member Rabbi Menachem Schmidt. “You can give a class forever, but when someone takes a Torah and dances with it, that makes a connection that is extremely powerful.”
At college and university campuses across the country, and around the world, Chabad representatives were creating bonds with students, new and reluctant, by sharing holiday experiences from traditional starlit dances with the Torah to unusual, rabbi-made sushi dinners and floating sukkahs. Plowing creativity into holiday observances may make a splash on campus, but it’s the ripple affect Chabad representatives are after, one that leads to greater Jewish awareness and pride.
Reaching a maximum number of students kept Rabbis Haskelevich and Levin up all night. They started at 7:30 with a Simchat Torah celebration for Sephardic Jewish students on the UPenn campus. Feasting on kibbeh, deep fried mini-pies with meat filling, the crowd sang Jewish songs from their homes in Panama, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina and New York. The party continued at Hillel. At ten, UPenn students arrived at Chabad’s campus center to dance with the Torah. Venturing into a relentless drizzle, Haskelevich and Levin swaddled the Torah and took the party to Sigma Nu, TEP, and Sigma Alpha Mu (the Jewish fraternity better known as Sammy) and other Greek houses. “Handing a Torah off to a student who dances with it establishes a bond,” said Rabbi Levin. “You see each other, you remember that night. It can begin a relationship that lasts the rest of the student’s four years in college.”
Throwing marathon events is part of meeting students and knowing the campus culture, and that’s how Rabbi Reuven Leigh has been building Chabad’s reputation at Cambridge University in England. Semesters in eight-week chunks crowd Cambridge student schedules with breakneck classes, backbreaking assignments and not much time for run of the mill activities. Rabbi Leigh, acting as itamae, or sushi chef, followed downloaded directions from the ‘net to slice through event clutter. He cut and rolled handmade sushi in the Sukkah on Friday night to a crowd of 40. That was preceded by the Leigh’s hot Hookah in the Sukkah night and followed by Vodka in the Sukkah on Monday night (England’s drinking culture bestows legality on eighteen-year-olds and carries none of the notoriety it would across the pond.) Earlier that week, bent on creating a stir that was ever-so-Cambridge, Rabbi Leigh and some students launched a sukkah on a punt down the River Cam.
Post-activity binge, Chabad of Cambridge has planned a few quiet Friday night dinners. Not because Reuven and Rochel Leigh are exhausted, though as the parents of two-month-old twin boys they have every right, but because of their campus smarts. “You’ve got to spread things out a bit. If you have an event a week and only twenty people show, your reputation as a cool place to go suffers,” said Rabbi Leigh. “People who want to come are always welcome, but they understand that it is a quieter dinner with my family and don’t expect a big crowd.”
At Columbia University, Chabad Student Center got a boost this year when it was granted formal recognition under United Campus Ministries. This official stamp of approval arrived during Chabad representatives Rabbi Yonah and Keren Blum’s eighth year on campus and helped them secure all-important co-sponsorships from Jewish graduate school clubs for their Sukkot event. Official recognition “opens doors,” said Keren Blum. “People are much more receptive. We were able to do a bigger event everyone wanted to co sponsor.”
A disco ball spun from the center of Chabad of Columbia University’s plywood sukkah, prisms refracted off the lush green pine bough roof. Graduate students grooved to the wail of a jazz group, Kol Hageulah, headed by observant Tulane University alums. Cool jazz with Jewish riffs, establishes “Chabad’s reputation early on,” said Blum. “When students take time from their pressing schedules to come to an event, they don’t want boring. Because it was a hot event, people are more likely to read our emails in the future. It’s a good stepping stone for the rest of the year.”