By Daniel Fleissig
Every Friday night, the walk down Bay Street and King Street is always accompanied by a sense of calmness and relaxation as I prepare myself to enter my home away from home. When I open the door, I am immediately hit by the wafting smell of roast chicken and am bombarded with “Hello” and “How are you, Daniel?”. Such greetings mark my arrival at the UC Santa Cruz Chabad Student Center for a Friday night Shabbat dinner.
Since before I started attending Chabad, there have been many misconceptions about its organization. Some students think that Chabad is only for Orthodox Jews and many freshmen and sophomores feel that they cannot attend because of this mistaken belief. A number of newer students do not realize that Chabad is a base for Jews, regardless of how religious they are. Further, Chabad is always open to non-Jews who would like to learn about Judaism and engage in the community. There is no intention to make any Jewish student feel uncomfortable or out of place at Chabad.
The Chabad House provides Jewish students a home for Jewish celebration and a center for Jewish education. Chabad’s goals are to make students feel comfortable, get in touch with their heritage and community, and allow them to grow at their own pace. The two rocks of the Chabad House are Rabbi Shlomie and Devorah Leah Chein. Many who attend Chabad do not understand that the organization is independently operated and funded by Rabbi Shlomie and Devorah Leah who own the house and center. Anywhere one looks, one can always be sure to find one of the six Chein children as well. Whether you want to play with one of the children, help set up the table, or mingle with the rest of the guests, there is always a place for everyone at the Chabad house.
Chabad’s most popular event is its Shabbat dinners, but people might be surprised to find out the Cheins also serve Shabbat lunches on Saturday afternoons. Both gatherings entail four course meals and I cannot count the amount of times I have left the Chabad house with a full and content stomach. For me, life in Santa Cruz would not be the same if I did not get the opportunity to dunk my challah into Devorah Leah’s delicious eggplant dip. An optional Shabbat service begins at 7:00pm and dinner begins at 7:30pm. After saying the prayers over the bread and wine, everyone digs in to the first course, which usually consists of challah, hummus, the best gefilte fish I have ever had, and numerous salads consisting of pastas, broccoli, corn, and many other tasty vegetables.
The second course is a healthy portion of matzah ball soup, which is a Jewish soup dumpling served in chicken broth with carrots, onions, and celery. Finally, the main course arrives and if everyone feasts on chicken, potato kugels, vegetables, and rice. Of course, there is a often a vegetarian option for anyone who has diet restrictions.
The final course is dessert, which is always accompanied by one of Rabbi Shlomie’s Jewish anecdotes and of course a shout-out to Devorah Leah for the amazing meal she cooked for all the guests. There are many other meals and celebrations at the Chabad House, such as Passover, Simcha Torah, and Sukkot. I always know I have place to go when I want to celebrate a Jewish holiday.
There are many other reasons to go to Chabad outside of sharing a beautiful meal with others. Rabbi Shlomie and Devorah Leah are always available to talk to whenever one would like. Also available are numerous opportunities to expand one’s Jewish education. Rabbi Shlomie teaches a number of classes, such as Sinai Scholars, that allow students to explore their heritage and guides students in discovering who they are. Rabbi Shlomie also teaches two classes for credit at UCSC, Women in the Bible and 18th Century Kabala. Chabad also offers one-on-one study.
The Chabad House often welcomes guest speakers to Shabbat dinners and the education classes. The topics and speakers range from Israeli-related topics to Jewish history or even an interesting Jew in the world. One of my favorite speakers at Chabad was Steve Solomon, a 21 year old Australian Jew, who spoke about his experiences running in the Olympics. He described his inner struggle during his championship race that took place during Passover as he refused to eat chametz (rice) despite needing carbohydrates to excel.
This year is the year of Hakhel, which emphasizes unity and gives an ‘excuse’ to focus on community. In the Torah, there was a commandment that said once every seven years all Jews must gather in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem where the king would read from the Torah to inspire his people. Ever since the temple was destroyed, Jews stopped practicing Hakhel until a Chabad rabbi brought back the program as he often wondered why Jews should lose out on such an important holiday. This Chabad-inspired program’s mission is to bring out as many Jews to strengthen Judaism, regardless if the event is watching a movie together or serving the community.
Coinciding with Hakhel, the Chabad House is starting a new tradition called the Jewish Supper Club where they offer kosher dinner during the week. Another new Hakhel program is encouraging students to get together and study Jewish topics as Chabad is offering to sponsor them with deli sandwiches.
The Jewish community does not realize just how much Chabad contributes and we should all be very grateful for everything they have done. I know that my college experience would not be the same without all the Shabbat dinners I have attended, the wild Simcha Torah celebrations, and the Pesach dinners that were my first away from home.