Last week, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University and a Minister of State came to dine at a banquet celebrating the opening of the Rohr Chabad House at Cambridge University.
The head of the chemistry department, the head of the Cairo Genizah collection, a leading classics professor and a highly regarded history professor supped on hired kosher crockery and cutlery to toast achievement. Rabbi Shmuel Lew was present as a representative of the Executive Board of Chabad UK. Together with college leaders, students, parents and alumni, the 85 guests welcomed the new Rohr Chabad House in true Cambridge style.
In a magnificent space in Corpus Christi College that had never seen a kosher meal, the caliber of the multi-course, multi-wine Chabad dinner since its founding in 1352, University Vice Chancellor Professor Alison Richard praised philanthropist George Rohr’s gift as a “most generous benefaction” and clearly expressed her wish that others follow suit as the university embarks on a billion-dollar fundraising goal to mark its 800th anniversary.
The Minister of State at the Department for Education and Skills, MP Bill Rammell, whose responsibilities span lifelong learning and higher education, praised Chabad for offering “counseling for stress and other problems. As such it can be an oasis of calm in a world that seems ever more preoccupied, ever more demanding.” MP Rammell also recognized that, at Chabad, “students gain a more diverse university experience and will be part of a community based on mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.”
Michael Amior, who is studying economics at Cambridge University’s St. Catherine College, said that the dinner heralded loudly and clearly Chabad’s arrival as a major player on campus. “If you get recognition it serves as a conduit for accomplishing the actual mission of Chabad,” said Amior. “The more Jews who know what’s going on, the more Chabad makes a bigger splash, the more people will attend” its programs.
Even though renovation on the Center, a converted townhouse, is ongoing, Amior joined Cambridge Chabad representative Rabbi Reuven Leigh for a look at the new space. “It’s quite cozy, quite cool,” said Amior.
And that is exactly how Chabad representative Rochel Leigh wants him and other Cambridge students to feel. Now that the Leighs have been at Cambridge for nearly three years, they know what appeals to students. The Rohr Chabad House is aiming for a “Starbucks lounge effect,” according to Rochel Leigh. By opening date in April, students will be invited to unwind on couches, caffeinate themselves at the coffee machines and munch on kosher sandwiches in the Center. Chabad will be a space for hanging out, “a cozy, warm atmosphere. That is really what we want.” Jewish books will line the walls of the main room. On Friday night, coffee aromas will be replaced with aromas of warm challah and chicken soup for the Chabad House’s popular Shabbat dinners.
In an unusual move, quite uncommon to other Chabad centers on college campuses, a mikvah is to be built on site. The ritual bath will be used by married women from the university and the surrounding community. There are many married students and young academics on campus who would potentially be interested in using a mikvah if it wasn’t such an inconvenience. Currently the closest mikvah is an hour’s train-ride away in Ilford. Most students do not have cars, and a late night immersion means missing the last train, necessitating an overnight stay away from home.
Broadening the definition of Chabad on campus further, Rabbi Leigh envisions a day when the Rohr Chabad House will stock kosher provisions that are hard to get in Cambridge. Then there’s a drug counseling line Rabbi Leigh thinks would serve the college community nicely. And perhaps a Friendship Circle to start later on to bring social, Jewish experiences to children with special needs. And then, and then with a new Chabad center the possibilities are endless.