The campus at Harvard was quieter than usual on Passover eve. With spring break barely over, many of its Jewish students would be extending their break to celebrate the holiday with family. But at the gleaming campus Chabad House kitchen, Elki Zarchi was supervising final preparations for the Seder, which she and her husband, Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi would take to the Spangler Hall at the Harvard Business School, the only division whose spring break did not coincide with Passover.
About one hundred students, including some from nearby M.I.T., joined the Zarchis, taking part in a seder where spirituality and aesthetics met in the form of a very beautifully prepared seder table. Over four cups of wine, lots of Matzah, and a scrumptious variety of other holiday foods, students journeyed together, using the Haggadah as a guide, and turning to the Zarchis for added insight. Together we explored the deeper dimensions of bondage and freedom. Freedom, said Rabbi Zarchi, “is not illustrated by anarchy or chaos, but by the right to self-determination which is only possible when there is order. This is the freedom we celebrate on Passover, a freedom from the bondage of Pharaoh, wherein we are given a structure, an order, literally a Seder, through which we can transcend all the barriers, and achieve true liberty.”
Similarly, on university campuses from the University of Florida to Indiana State, from the Universty of Chicago to Stanford, Jewish students joined Chabad to find a warm, open home where ancient Passover rituals were served up with a creative edge that made it an inspiring and memorable Passover.
At the University of Chicago, Rabbi Yossi and Baila Brackman hosted fifty students for a 15-step Kabbalah Seder, probing the deeper significance of the ritual observances, and sparking thought-provoking conversations that lasted well into the night.
For the 60 students who joined Rabbi Dov and Rachel Greenberg for the first Chabad seder at Stanford University, the concept of freedom took on new meaning, as students examined the Chasidic perspective on the idea, where freedom is illustrated not by a cessation of work, but by the individual taking control over the usage of his time. This is illustrated in the very first step of the seder–the Kiddush, explained Rabbi Greenberg, “which gives the Jew authority over time, and teaches him/her to value time and make it holy.” Elucidating on the meaning of the Haggadah, Rabbi Greenberg pointed out an alternative meaning of the word Haggadah: to bind, join, or connect. More than a recounting of things bygone and past, the story of the Exodus binds the present to the past and the future, connecting one generation to the next, said Rabbi Greenberg. “Jewish continuity means that each successive generation commits itself to continuing the miraculous story of our nation.”
A significant portion of Jewish students, primarily those already somewhat affiliated, travel home to be with family during the Passover seder. For Chabad, that meant many of the regulars were not around to join in the Passover festivities. But it gave them an opportunity to greet many new, unfamiliar faces, coming around for an annual reminder, and a chance to spiritually recharge and reconnect.
At the University of Southern California, Rabbi Dov and Runya Wagner hosted 60 students each seder night, many of them first-timers at Chabad, and possibly ever at a Passover seder. Students lingered on until 2 a.m., discussing the idea of freedom from one’s personal entrapments.
Students at Indiana University took to the Passover celebration in advance, stopping by the Chabad student center in the days before Passover for a “quick talk and peel,” pitching in with Rabbi Yehoshua and Zlata Baila Chincholker’s holiday preparations. The big hit this year on campus? Shmurah Matzah, says Zlata Baila, who took note of the students’ excitement over the handmade matzah that is kept under close watch from reaping until the dough is made, to ensure the wheat not come into contact with water prematurely, and render the matzah unfit for use on Passover. “There was lots of lively discussion, a lot of questions and students really took to the whole experience very well, and came away really moved,” says Zlata Baila.
Some 300 students joined Chabad at the University of Florida for the seder, and at the University of Maryland and UPenn, close to 70 students joined each of Chabad’s seders.
Across the ocean, students at Cambridge University were given their first taste of Passover with Chabad, several months since Rabbi Reuven and Rachel Leigh’s arrival on campus. In similar fashion to other campus Chabad houses, students took turns reading from the Haggadah, in whatever language they were comfortable, adding flavor to the readings with questions and commentary.
For Yaniv, a graduate student at the Stanford Business School, the Passover experience with Chabad “will be carved in my mind for the rest of my life.” No doubt he absorbed the message shared by Chabad representatives at every campus: Passover is an opportunity to break free of the shackles that tie us down, and experience freedom on a very real and personal level.
“Without you,” says Yaniv, “I would not be proud and happy to be Jewish at Stanford . . . Chabad House has taught me to feel the uniqueness of my Jewish neshama.”