Last Friday night, over 450 students attended Shabbat United, a joint venture between Hillel and Chabad at Brandeis, to celebrate the weekly Jewish holiday in a communal way.
The meal, held in the Levin Ballroom, featured the traditional blessings over wine (Kiddush), bread (challah) and grace after meals (birkat hamazon), in addition to aspects of both the typical Hillel and Chabad weekly experiences. The boisterous singing, clapping and standing on chairs that often define Chabad on a Friday night were complemented with student speeches and implementation that is engrained in Hillel's mission.
The community shared a moment of silence for the victims of Hurricane Sandy and participated in a raffle in which students selected in advance answered philosophical questions such as, "If you could have one vice without any consequences, what would it be and why?," both of which were unique to the event itself.
This year was the third instance of the event and the first since it was cancelled last year due to "logistical" issues, Larry Sternberg, director of Hillel at Brandeis, said in an interview with the Justice. "We had trouble booking rooms last year and coordinating between the two organizations, and we also needed time to assess the best ways to implement this type of event to fit both organizations involved," Sternberg continued.
"One of the largest challenges with an event like this is that we are two different institutions, with different ways of operating," said Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz, codirector of the Orthodox Union's Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Brandeis and an advisor to the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, just one of the over 20 student clubs and performing arts groups that exist under the umbrella of Hillel.
Hillel has existed at Brandeis since the 1950s. Today, it hosts between 80 and 120 students weekly for Shabbat dinner and offers resources to Jewish students on campus in a multitude of ways. The 12-person student board oversees the organization and places great emphasis on student-run initiatives-as indicated by their Shabbat dinners. "They are student-run, from the organization and planning of the meal to the speeches and leading of prayers," Allie Saran '13, student president of Hillel at Brandeis, said in an interview with the Justice.
Unlike Hillel, Chabad is quite new to the University. It began in 2001 when Rabbi Peretz Chein and his wife, Chanie, received a grant from a private donor to start a Chabad at Brandeis. Today, the Chein family hosts between 150 and 220 students per week in their family home on Turner Street. The meals, generally lasting four hours, include singing, dancing, introductions for people who are new and speeches. The food is home-cooked and the Chabad board, established in 2003 when the Student Union recognized Chabad as a student club, supports the Cheins in the setup of meals and implementation of holiday programming. "Unlike with Hillel, Chanie and I are really the backbone of a Chabad experience. It's not to say what is better or worse, but it is different," Chein explained.
Regardless of the difference in models between Chabad and Hillel, Chein explained that, "We're both concerned with students having a fulfilling Jewish life on campus and both being able to provide comfort and support in a basic Jewish way to students who need it and want it."
The idea for Shabbat United arose from the personal friendship between the Kaplowitzs and the Cheins. Kaplowitz recalls attending a holiday meal at Chabad four years ago and that "there was a lot of excitement that we were there." It was an "inter-mixing" between Hillel and Chabad that students had never experienced before. When the idea of Shabbat United was presented to the student boards of both organizations, Kaplowitz explained that students were immediately enthusiastic of the idea, and he could sense "the real desire to celebrate pluralism in a real way and this was a really definitive way of doing that."
"We do Shabbat dinner separately every other night of the year, but we came together for this Friday night to create an experience larger than both Chabad and Hillel could ever do on their own," Mitchell Schwartz '14, president of the Chabad Student Board, said in an interview with the Justice following the event.
Shabbat United led to discussions of collaboration between Chabad and Hillel on a larger scale which today can be seen at Shabbat United as well as communal candle lightings for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and dancing with the Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah.
Both Chabad and Hillel organizers acknowledge the competition that generally exists between the two organizations but argue that it serves in a healthy way to improve Jewish programming and resources for students on campus.
One goal of Shabbat United that Kaplowitz highlighted was, "We wanted to show students that we want them to have whatever Jewish experience works for them, and by Hillel partnering with Chabad, it was Hillel showing a sign of approval of Chabad, and vice versa."