Students celebrate Shabbat Around WashU

Jeremy Robbins, a WashU junior and member of Challah for Hunger, prepares challah in the Hillel kitchen for many of the Shabbat Around WashU dinners.

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Ali Zak, a freshman at Washington University, has enjoyed the Shabbat meals at the campus Hillel and Chabad centers.

But she grew up in a Modern Orthodox house in Oakland, Calif. and is used to “smaller, more intimate Shabbat meals.”

“I think it can be a little bit intimidating or overwhelming” to attend the larger dinners “if you are unfamiliar with Shabbat or used to having more of a family-style Shabbat,” said Zak.

As such, Zak was excited about the second annual Shabbat Around WashU this past weekend in which more than 400 students attended one of 30 dinners spread across campus.

Hillel sponsored the program and supplied students with grape juice, challah and candles, among other items. 

The organization hoped that by giving students the basics, they would help them “create their own enduring Shabbat traditions so that when they graduate they feel comfortable and confident and are able to continue engaging in these traditions for their friends and family,” said Jackie Levey, executive director and CEO of Hillel at Washington University in St. Louis.. 

On Friday afternoon, Zak and fellow student Adina Ornstein were preparing a squash soup and helping set up for a dinner at the Hillel center for first-year students. 

“We are feeling kind of autumn vibes,” said Zak, who spent a year in Israel before starting at Wash U. 

The rest of their meal was catered. Alumni Bill Solomon and Barbara Binaco donated money to support the program. Hillel staff was able to work out a “cost-effective” deal with Kohn’s Restaurant and Deli to purchase roasted chicken, potatoes and green beans, Levey said. Or Hillel provided students with a $5 subsidy per person to prepare their own food.

The Hillel centers at University of Maryland and University of Michigan have done similar programs. At Wash U, the Hillel offered to sponsor private dinners on a Shabbat and for a Passover seder last year. Last week, the organization gave first-time hosts a kiddush cup. Those doing it for a second time received a challah board. 

“Coming to Shabbat dinner at Hillel really creates a great atmosphere in the building and we are able to connect students who don’t know one another and demonstrate the blessings,” said Rabbi Jordan Gerson, who serves as the campus rabbi. “But with this project, we are letting our students know that Shabbat can look anyway they want it to look. (It gives) them the experience and the know-how to bring Shabbat into their homes because they are not always going to be in a community where Shabbat dinner is provided for them.” 

Jewish and non-Jewish students were invited to participate. Gerson visited the secular Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house and did an “Ask the Rabbi” session. 

One student asked Gerson about the Jewish ideas on what happens in the afterlife as well as his personal beliefs, recalled Ethan Wiseman, a junior from Mountain View, Calif. 

A political science major, Wiseman was more involved in the Jewish community in high school than he is today. But he traveled to Israel on a Hillel-sponsored Birthright trip last winter and met Gerson. He said the rabbi reached out to him over the summer and told him that he wanted to make outreach “more of a student initiative.”

“Us students may have a little more facetime with other students than a Hillel rabbi,” said Wiseman, 20. 

He helped plan Shabbat Around WashU, including the fraternity dinner with about 20 students. 

“It was a very pleasant atmosphere,” said Wiseman. “We had a lot of guys, Jewish and non-Jewish, who had a chance to detox with each other at the end of a long week.”