Where all are welcome
Non-Jewish students find their way to the warm lights of the Chabad house
The aroma of a home-cooked meal engulfs you the moment you step inside the Chabad house at 54 Turner Street. Off in the distance, two candles stand tall while chairs are efficiently squeezed together with just enough room to fit every person comfortably. As handfuls of students begin to arrive-about 140 every Friday, all dressed up in their finest Sabbath attire-they fill the empty seats row by row. Some offer to finish up any of the housekeeping tasks before the Friday night dinner begins; others catch up with one another on the week that has just passed. A relaxed atmosphere devoid of school or work pressures fills the air as twilight has transformed into night.
For the large Jewish community on campus, the Brandeis Chabad house is a symbol of spirituality, social events and a warm family atmosphere. Yet seated at the Shabbat tables each week are a multitude of non-Jewish students, who seek in the Chabad house the same peaceful, celebratory feeling.
For Daniela Montoya-Fontalvo '11, attending the dinner at Chabad was a kind of first for her.
"I had never been to anything Jewish before in my life and really wanted to see where and how my Jewish friends spent part of their Friday evenings," she says.
Attending religious events was not new to Montoya-Fantalvo. As a Catholic, she used to attend services every Sunday and says she "loved going to church for the sense of community." Little did she know, but by following her Jewish friends to a Friday night dinner, she would find the same type of comfort and warmth within the walls of Chabad that she found in church-regardless of the fact that she is not Jewish.
"Everybody at Chabad was so accepting, warm and inviting," she says. "It is amazing to take part in singing, eating and spending time together in such a comfortable environment; I was surprised that I didn't feel out of place at all."
"Jewish students really take this for granted," Montoya-Fonatalvo says. "I wish I had something similar to this on campus."
In fact, many non-Jewish Chabad attendees I interviewed all expressed the same appreciation for the communal attitude and warmth that Rabbi Peretz Chein, his wife, Chanie, and the Brandeis students who celebrate at Chabad exhibit.
"It's wonderful that non-Jewish students have commented on this," Chein said. "We reflect [community] and I am so happy non-Jews have felt what we try to transmit."
JiYun Lee, '11 also confesses her fascination with the Chabad experience, expressing the fact that many of her friends at Brandeis attended the Chabad dinner every Friday night.
"I was somewhat familiar with Judaism from my high school experience in Hong Kong as an international student," she says. "But I never truly immersed myself in such a setting and was really interested to see what happens inside."
Lee, who doesn't practice any religion, also noted how the Chabad experience related to her life, as she deeply appreciated the philosophical life lessons that the rabbi explained during a sermon he gave at a Shabbat meal.
"Not only was the rabbi funny, charismatic and enthusiastic when giving his speech, but I was surprised how the messages and things he talked about applied to everybody-even myself," she says.
Chein typically discusses Jewish themes relating to finding one's own identity and fitting in with other students during college.
Caleb Smith '10 sometimes even brings friends from outside schools to Friday night services at Chabad to experience what he calls "a unique aspect of Judaism."
Home-schooled in Havel, Mass., Smith says he was raised in a devoutly Christian home, where his family environment and most of his friends were very religious. Smith recognizes Chabad as "a jollier sect of Judaism, which, in some ways, is very similar to [his] deep religious upbringing."
Originating in the late 18th century, the Chabad movement today provides many outreach programs, runs thousands of Chabad houses, Jewish community centers, synagogues and schools around the world.
The Cheins arrived here in Waltham back in 2001 to establish the Brandeis Chabad House, where they have embodied the main creed of Chabad: "to engage fellow Jews at their own pace and comfort level through innovative education programs in all areas of Jewish life," according to the "Chabad at Brandeis" website.
Chein is familiar with the large Jewish population at Brandeis and the uncomfortable feelings non-Jewish students might have when attending a school with such a dense population of Jewish students. Back in 2006, in a previous attempt to accommodate a growing interest in Chabad, Chein offered classes to gentiles to learn about Judaism. The classes included question-and-answer sessions about the Jewish religion and information about different Jewish customs.
"It is important to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for what Judaism is about when we are talking about non-Jews," Chein said. The classes were discontinued, however, due to meager attendance.
The Cheins currently offer other classes on Judaism for Brandeis students, which have been much more successful. Approximately 25 Jewish students take part in weekly iLearn classes that Chabad offers, such as "Judiasm in a Semester" and "Medical Ethics."
Students in iLearn courses cover everything from the Jewish sacred texts to answering and analyzing life's complexity and meaning through philosophical discussion. Chein says he offers these classes in order to "empower Jews through knowledge."
All denominations of Judaism are welcome to attend the classes. "It reflects a core belief of ours," Chein says. "We view a Jew is a Jew is a Jew."
Rabbi Chein sees Shabbat dinner as an essential complement to the intellectual Jewish education his classes provide.
The dinner experience, as Chein explains, serves to "provide the ability to 'live' through an educational experience, [as] both the intellectual and communal experience, are essential, feeding and serving each other; both are tools to empower and are equally important."
For people of any faith, the Chabad House allows them to take part weekly in a communal sense of peace, spirituality and belonging.
Says Smith, "Seeing people singing together loudly, dancing on chairs, the rabbi jumping up and down on a chair or people just being genuinely happy with their faith is a very beautiful thing that I appreciate and understand.