Eight hundred and fifty Jewish students from far and wide converged on New York City last weekend for an annual Shabbaton, touring popular city sites here and enjoying the hospitality of Chabad Lubavitch families in Crown Heights.
The event was planned months ago, but a recent announcement that President Barack Obama would visit the area Friday affected the logistics as cops shut down some major streets for the presidential motorcade.
Chabad on Campus International Foundation, the program organizer, said it's all good.
"Aside from minor detours in shuttling participants to and from programs on Friday, we expect the president's visit to only the enhance the excitement surrounding the Shabbaton for the participants around the country," said Rabbi Moshe Chaim Dubrowski, director of programming for the group before the event.
"We will give President Obama a rousing Chabad on Campus welcome to the neighborhood."
Obama helicoptered into Prospect Park, then traveled by car to the Pathways in Technology Early College High School on Albany Avenue for an event there.
The third annual Shabbaton, which commenced in spite of Hurricane Sandy around this time last year, drew students, mostly undergraduates, who take part in kosher meals, prayer services, classes and other programs at campuses around the country and as far away as Paris, London and Leeds. Thirty students came from Drexel University in Philadelphia. Students pay just $36 in addition to their travel costs.
David Cleaner, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin told The Jewish Week Thursday that Chabad offers a warm and inviting atmosphere that is less organizational-oriented than the campus's thriving Hillel chapter.
"Every Friday night there is a minimum of 40 people," at Shabbat dinners hosted by the Chabad emissary at UT, Rabbi Zev Johnson, said Cleaner. "The Hillel is more structured; Chabad is a place where people just get together, spend time, together, spend holidays together." He said the campus has about 6,000 Jewish students.
The accounting major from California's Bay Area, who missed last year's shabbaton, attended the inaugural event during his sophomore year. He said he was looking forward to "meeting and spending time with my host family. It's great to get to know their lifestyle and how everthing works and how they raise their family and to see their neighborhood. It's intriguing to me."
Cleaner said he considers himself Conservative and does not plan to become Orthodox, but credits Chabad for encouraging him to maintain his level of Jewish observance, rather than let it decline. He said Rabbi Johnson seems to be cognizant that pressuring students to become more religious -- such as by asking men to put on tefillin, as many Chabadnicks do in New York --would scare them off.
"College students are more likely to run away if you are too aggressive with them," said Cleaner. "He has to be careful not to push them away."
Daniel Botteh, 22, an accounting major at Arizona State University in Phoenix said he enjoyed taking part in Chabad events because "you meet people from different parts of the world and they are basically like your family." He said he was looking forward to a visit to the Queens gravesite of the late Chabad rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. "He touched many people's lives when he was around, and inspired a lot of people," said Botteh, who is from San Francisco.
Last year, some students couldn't make it because of flights canceled the weekend of Sandy, but many of those who came volunteered with Chabad's relief efforts in Brooklyn and Long Island.
"The energy created when hundreds of Jewish students from around the world gather together is simply unparalleled," said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International Foundation. "They come as individuals but leave knowing they are an integral part of a huge loving and supportive family.
"And they return to their campuses inspired to be Jewish leaders and role models."
The Shabbaton is one of two major logistical events planned within two weeks by Chabad. On Nov. 3, 5,200 rabbis from around the globe will come to Eastern Parkway for the largest-ever conference of the movement's emissaries.
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