From its beginning a few years ago as a weekly gathering of two rabbinical students and two sophomores for Friday night dinners at unit 3M in the Taft apartment building, the Shabbat dinner hosted by the group “Chabad at Yale” has grown into a full-blown dinner party that hosts upwards of 100 students each week.
The Jewish organization, which was founded at Yale about three years ago, has multiplied fivefold from the approximately 20 students it started with this year. Now, co-founder Rabbi Shua Rosenstein and his wife, Sara, plan to expand the popular center beyond the homey dinners it has always offered to include additional educational programs, such as kosher cooking and Kabbalah classes, “poker, cigars and Torah study” sessions and programs for graduate students. The group already offers interactive Saturday morning services and Hebrew lessons.
“It’s definitely growing,” Sara Rosenstein said. “Next week, we’ll almost probably be popping out the door.”
Shua Rosenstein said one of the main projects the group will be focusing on this semester is the Kabbalah class, which will be offered on four Tuesday evening sessions.
“This is part of a statewide effort,” he said. “February is Kabbalah month.”
The sessions will focus on the Kabbalah of time, of love and intimacy, of the after-life and of the relationship between humans and God, Rosenstein said. They will be about “authentic” Kabbalah, he said, in reference to the Jewish mysticism that has been popularized recently by celebrity practitioners including Madonna.
Chabad at Yale is also organizing a Birthright trip to Israel this summer mainly for students at Yale but also for some Harvard and Princeton students. The Rosensteins said they may be able to make the trip especially interesting for the students by having meetings with top Israeli politicians.
They also plan to continue expanding the center by hosting speakers such as writers, state senators, and University officials including Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, who will speak this April.
In light of the group’s success in expanding participation among undergraduates, the Rosensteins said they feel that their biggest challenge in outreach is including graduate students.
“There’s a big division between graduate students and undergrads at Yale, so we want to start more programs for them,” Sara Rosenstein said. These plans include “lunch and discuss” sessions at which topics of discussion would include the relationship between Judaism and bioethical issues, such as abortion.
The typical Friday night dinner attracts a diverse crowd, ranging from Orthodox Jews such as the Rosensteins to non-Jews who said they are drawn to the dinners by the welcoming atmosphere, plentiful homemade food and drink, and interesting conversation.
“The thing everyone shares is being open-minded and looking for a good time,” said Adam Metzger ’08, who frequently attends the dinners. “There’s a lot of toasting. Everyone’s strongly encouraged to offer a l’chaim [toast].”
The dinners typically begin with the Shabbat prayer, which Shua Rosenstein tries to make accessible with brief explanations and a book with the transliterated chant. The prayer is followed by a four-course meal and wine, and conversation at the table ranges from school gossip to conflict in the Middle East.
“Everybody is welcome at the 3M table,” said Baily Blair ’06, who is not Jewish and whose boyfriend was a co-founder. “I’ve really enjoyed learning about the Jewish faith. They encourage debate and questions.”
In comparing Chabad to other Jewish centers, a number of students cited Chabad’s intimate atmosphere and openness to students of all levels of Judaic background as its main appeal.
“Slifka is focused more towards the Orthodox community and does a great job for that,” said Josh Schwartz ’05, who was heavily involved with 3M and Chabad soon after its founding. “I hadn’t really gone out to look for an outlet for my reformed Judaism, but once I started going to 3M I realized that I was filling a void. It was a fun alternate experience.”
Co-founder Brian Korchin ’05, who brought Schwartz to his first dinner, said Chabad’s growth can largely be explained by its inclusivity.
“I think that an important principle to the growth was that we didn’t want it to be a membership organization,” Korchin said. “We wanted people just to have an authentic organic experience in a Jewish setting.”
Korchin said that as the group expands, this turn from a membership foundation can also be a weakness when it comes to delegating duties, but he said Shua Rosenstein’s permanent presence will help Chabad overcome this challenge.
Yet as Chabad at Yale continues to expand, Sara Rosenstein said that the organization will need to continue to look for funding for its free programs from its slowly growing alumni base, parents of students and outsiders interested in the program, especially as Chabad may soon need to find a bigger space. She said that the way the group hopes to gain more support is by continuing to be receptive to the needs of the students.
“We want the students to mold it and make it their style,” she said.