(Lubavitch.com) At a Friday night dinner in a New York City apartment in mid-July, young professionals celebrated Shabbat around long tables with familiar faces they hadn’t seen since college, and a lively routine led by Chabad campus representatives Rabbi Peretz and Chani Chein, harking back to the popular campus Shabbat dinners at Brandeis University.
There were 30 men and women, some who graduated back in 2003, and other more recent graduates who were more than happy at the invitation to join the Cheins.
Julian Olidort, a Fulbright Scholar who spent last year in Sweden doing economic research, walked 45 minutes from his place across town, to join. “We've grown together with Chanie and Peretz, and after graduation it's the memories of our intellectual engagement and our best times in college,” he said, that draw students back to the Cheins’ Shabbat table.
Chanie and Peretz decided to spend the slow summer months in Manhattan, where a good portion of Brandeis alumni are now living, because they didn’t want to lose touch with people who’ve become part of their family. “Three years ago, during a winter break it occurred to us that we are losing touch with our alumni,” Rabbi Chein said.
The Cheins, parents of four, said they also noticed that almost all of the alumni who had forged a close bond with them “had not replaced the intimate relationship they had with us as their resource for Jewish life, with anyone else, and that was leaving a vacuum in their lives.”
Leading a transient campus community is different, observed Rabbi Chein, than serving a residential community. “We serve a demographic community. When the demographic depletes itself during the summer we have an obligation to go to the next place with the largest concentration of our demographic.”
Jacklyn Cohen, 22, and today a teacher at The Ramaz School, understands the sentiment. “Many of us got to know the Chein children well. After watching them grow up over four years, we can't help but feel a certain pride in their accomplishments.” The feeling is of course mutual, she said. “The Cheins have invested so many hours in core aspects of our development as individuals and as Jews during a crucial period in our lives, that it is important for them too, to see how we ‘turn out.’”
Jacklyn’s husband, Yoni Cohen was at the table with her. Asked what brought the 24-year-old start-up entrepreneur to the Shabbat dinner, he said, “Maintaining our relationship with Chanie and Peretz is a no brainer. I met my wife while we were both serving on the board of Chabad of Brandeis. We look forward to many years of friendship with the Cheins.”
In addition to Shabbat dinners in the city, the Cheins meet individually with alumni and their families during the week, giving them a better opportunity to catch up. “Our relationship with students often expand to their families, and the summer in NYC allows us to spend together with them,” says Chanie.
Students lingered at the table over Chanie’s home-cooked Shabbat fare till the wee hours, reminiscing and enjoying Peretz’s funky, “out of the box” approach to Jewish engagement. The sense of familiarity and family with the Chein children, and even the Chanie’s parents and grandmother who joined, reflected years of dedication to the students.
But it’s not just the warm rapport and memories of campus life with Chabad that motivates the Cheins to keep up with alumni who have moved on. “Friday night dinner is great,” Chanie told the students as they dug into garlic chicken and roasted veggies. “But that’s only a small part of it. Learning really has to be a priority, and we’d like to invite more of you to commit to Torah study on a steady basis.” She reminded them to participate at the alumLearn program the Cheins conceived, using webex to videoconference all the class participants.
More than a home away from home, Chabad, say students, was vital to advancing Jewish intellectual activities during their campus years. “From Friday night dinners to iLearn, there was always something going on to ensure that I, along my friends of all religious backgrounds, could maintain and even advance our love and knowledge of Judaism and the Jewish people,” Yoni recalled.
With a Fulbright scholarship on his resume, Julian’s career prospects are promising. Thoughtful about Jewish identity and Jewish values, he points to Chabad's critical role for Jewish students on campus and beyond.
“Peretz and Chanie attract and inspire students from both affiliated and unaffiliated Jewish backgrounds. The Cheins provide a unique combination of a warm home, a friendly pressure-free zone in which to grow religiously, and most importantly, they share our intellectual curiosity. A lot of students only begin to appreciate the power of learning when they get to college and I've realized that students share this appreciation with the Cheins.”