Student Leadership, Unity, Holiday Festivals and Learning Set Foundation for the Hakhel Year on Campus
Hakhel celebrations began around the world with the onset of the joyous holiday of Sukkot, and Chabad’s emissaries here in New Jersey are employing new ways to engage Jewish people of every age and background throughout the state of New Jersey inspiring them to participate in the festival’s many mitzvahs.
This past month’s flurry of campus activities at Rutgers brought together over 2,000 students from every walk of life and level of observance to celebrate Judaism, experience the excitement, warmth, and delicious foods of Shabbat, and partake in the many mitzvot of the Jewish holidays. With powerful student leadership, this full month of holidays at Chabad brought together the greatest number of college students in the nation to observe and celebrate the new Jewish year, honoring this special Hakhel year, a time when Jewish unity is emphasized.
Rabbi Baruch Goodman, Chabad’s Campus Activities Director stated “there’s clearly a special blessing happening this year in seeing the massive turnouts we’re experiencing at every program we’re offering. And this unprecedented success has only been proportional to the hard work of our dedicated and enthusiastic student leaders headed up by this year’s student President, Rebecca Roberman, RU ‘24, empowered by our most supportive administration led by our innovative Executive Director and Founder of Chabad House, Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, and his hardworking staff. The fabulous success we’re experiencing is a real tribute to everyone working closely together as one big family.”
2 Gather as 1
A special focus this year is on Hakhel. In ancient times, once every seven years immediately following the Shemittah year, Jews would stream to Jerusalem before the holiday of Sukkot to unite in the Holy Temple and hear the Torah read by the King of Israel. In modern times, celebrations of Jewish unity and pride throughout the Hakhel year are encouraged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. In addition to the millions who will be attending organized Hakhel celebrations throughout the year, the Rebbe encourages every person, women, men, and even children, to create their own impromptu Jewish gatherings, whether in honor of a birthday, anniversary, a Chanukah party, a Friday night “Oneg Shabbat” party with family or friends, whatever, all in the name of the traditional Hakhel gathering.
Starting on a HIGH Note
This past month at Rutgers, hundreds of students accompanied by their campus rabbis attended Rosh Hashanah services and Yom Tov meals, walked to the Ol’ Raritan River for the Tashlich service by the River Dorms, blew Shofar for patients in both S. Peters Medical Center and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, distributed hundreds of “apples ‘n honey” gift packs throughout Rutgers’ campuses, baked 400 lbs of challah, and observed Yom Kippur together with lively, inspiring prayers and talks, not to mention very well-attended pre- and post-fast feasts, just as important as the fast itself.
Then, it became z’man simchateinu – the time of our rejoicing – the festive holiday of Sukkot, where hundreds of students took turns coming into and eating in Chabad’s gigantic 500-person Sukkah. Simchat Beit HaShoavah celebrations during the Sukkot holiday featured Jerusalem Cafe (JCafe), live music, games, table sports competitions, and Chabad’s Education Director, Rabbi Shaya Shagalow’s Sushi ‘n Soul Torah Talk, all in the Sukkah.
Rabbi Carlebach commenting on the campus holiday celebrations added, “We are incredibly proud of all our students, especially our student leaders, who accept the challenge of getting involved in Jewish life at college and creating a very warm and welcoming environment for fellow Jewish students who, for no fault of their own, are not familiar with the joy and relevance of Judaism in their lives. In my wildest dreams,” said Rabbi Carlebach, “I never thought I would see 2,000 young people all celebrating their Jewish faith together at the Chabad House, which started so humbly in a converted firehouse on campus just 44 years ago. The successes we are experiencing on campus in our new, beautiful 95,000 sq ft campus facility, as well as within our communities throughout central and southern New Jersey, is a testament to all our loyal friends and supporters, to the great work our Chabad rabbis and Rebbetzins and their families are doing, and to our tireless and enthusiastic students. The Rebbe, in his incredible foresight, saw the untapped spiritual potential of the Jewish soul and the power of Jewish unity when he encouraged the building of Chabad Houses on College campuses back in the 50’s when he assumed the mantle of leadership of the Chabad Movement. It is this unity and love for one’s fellow, the Rebbe teaches, that will change the world for good and bring Moshiach.”
Perhaps the ultimate highlight of this month’s holidays was Simchat Torah – celebrating the world-wide concluding readings of the last section of the Torah, and the immediate start from the beginning once again with the first section of Torah in Genesis, “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth.” This late-night event brought together over 600 students who sang and danced the night away with the Torah Scrolls, starting inside Chabad House, and then lively dancing in the streets, down College Avenue, and ending up in front of the Rutgers College Ave Student Center.
Ukraine Meets Rutgers?
“Although the night of Simchat Torah brought out hundreds of new students,” added Rabbi Goodman, “there were a handful of students who just stood out for some reason. Although I went over and welcomed every new student, there was something curious about this one group who were sticking together and dancing most enthusiastically, somewhat surprising for new students. They said they had come in from Brooklyn and had heard that Rutgers Chabad is the place to celebrate Simchat Torah. Three of them had fled Ukraine when Russia invaded, flew to America, found these other 2 friends in Brooklyn, and somehow decided to celebrate Simchat Torah at Rutgers!”
After finishing the last of the 7 dances by the Student Center, the massive crowd marched and sang with the Torah Scrolls, covered by a large Chuppah with four students flanking the chuppah’s four corners, surrounded by hundreds of students back towards Chabad House for a festive Simchat Torah feast. Three students who escaped Ukraine a few months ago visited Chabad House for the holiday. After all the dancing and celebration, one committed, “there’s one thing we can’t get over — the smiling faces and energy your students have here. We haven’t seen smiles in quite a while. It feels good to be here – it feels good to be home.”