A Special Moment for Harvard's Jewish Community

by Rivka Chaya Berman - CAMBRIDGE, MA

February 23, 2006

Under the hammerbeam trusses and stenciled ceiling of Harvard’s Annenberg Hall, between stained glass windows and oil paintings with Civil War themes, in the soaring space where all Harvard freshmen dine, the tables were set with white roses and crisp tablecloths in honor of the Shabbat dubbed “Shabbat 1000.”

“Although nothing like it had ever happened before," Professor Ruth Wisse told Lubavitch.com. "Shabbat 1000 in Harvard's largest dining hall felt like a natural extension of the Shabbat many students enjoy at Chabad and Hillel. The organizers offered the campus a wonderful experience.”

Wisse, the Peretz Professor of Yiddish, Professor of Comparative Literature, is one of Chabad at Harvard’s faculty advisors who attended the dinner along with fellow Chabad faculty advisor Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan Dershowitz.

Twenty marble busts lining the perimeter of Annenberg Hall are carved in the likenesses of Harvard luminaries, many of whom presided over Harvard’s policies that long prevented Jews from enrolling in the 370-year- old college. At the dinner, in what would be one of Lawrence H. Summers’s final appearances before resigning as Harvard’s president, he noted the contrast between the old restrictions and Harvard’s large Jewish numbers now. “It was not always so,” Summers said, according to the Harvard Crimson. “But now it is so, and it will always be so. This is a special moment for Harvard’s Jewish community.”

Sandra Di Capua, a Romance Languages and Literatures major, who worked on the event remarked, “It was only after President Summers stepped up to the podium that I realized that this most prestigious institution--set in its values and traditions--had changed for the better. To see the Jewish President of Harvard University address such a large crowd at this historic event was awing and inspiring.”

Even today, when surveys suggest Jews comprise up to 25% of Harvard’s student body, Chabad at Harvard’s Shabbat dinner was reportedly the biggest assemblage of Jewish Harvard students for Shabbat – ever. The first 200 spots at the dinner were snapped up via a special event website within three days. Ten days before dinner was served, the event reached max capacity and generated a waitlist close to 100 names long, according to event organizer, Rebecca Rohr, Student President of Chabad at Harvard.

Pulling a crowd together that included members of the Harvard Democrats, the Harvard Republicans, theater majors and law school students, and convincing them to turn up for a Shabbat meal, required sensitivity to what would and would not fly on campus. In order to unite the Jewish community, a student-led planning committee shaped the event and Chabad invited Hillel to be its partner in the dinner. Annenberg Hall was selected because it was centrally located and “a neutral space,” said Rohr, without religious Jewish ties that allowed a larger segment of the Harvard community to “be open to the experience even if they had never been to a Shabbat dinner” on campus.

Chabad at Harvard’s co-director, Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi praised Rohr’s deft hand in assuring the event’s success. “Rebecca’s leadership has been a blessing to the work of Chabad at Harvard. She brings incredible sensitivity and passion to her work and as our leader on campus serves as a very special role model to many,” said Rabbi Zarchi.

The success of the mega, university-wide event was built upon Chabad at Harvard’s enormously successful graduate school Shabbat dinners. Its Business school Shabbat dinner brought together 275 future MBAs and the Law School Shabbat meal attracted 400 hungry legal eagles. Each week an average of up to 100 students attend Chabad’s regular Shabbat meals.

When the long-awaited Friday night arrived, 600 students surrounded the white cloth covered tables. “Within the immense community, were smaller, intimate spaces created at each table: old friends, new acquaintances, people who celebrate Shabbat each week, people who haven't in years,” said Judy Greenberg, former Undergraduate president of Harvard Hillel who helped coordinate the event.

As the traditional Shalom Aleichem hymn was sung, Annenberg Hall filled with voices some fluent in Hebrew, some recalling wisps of Hebrew school memories, some breaking their teeth over the transliterated song sheets, Shabbat truly arrived in Harvard Yard. A moment for which Chabad at Harvard’s co-director Elkie Zarchi described feeling “inadequate to fully capture in words the awesome moment when Harvard’s history, leadership, and students representing every school and discipline at Harvard came together as one united Jewish family in celebration of Shabbat.”

In the days that followed Shabbat 1000, Rohr said feedback from the event was incredible. New faces appeared at the Matisyahu Pre-concert Dinner at the Chabad House. People approached Rohr and told her they had felt disconnected from Harvard’s Jewish community ever since they arrived on campus, and the dinner had gone ways to repair the breach.

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