“Come to Chabad for dinner with me and Hannie tonight!” It’s early in October when my roommate, Molly, makes the invitation. In my ignorance, I thought she was just pronouncing “Shabbat” differently and that we’d be going to the CJL for dinner. “No, no, Chabad is different. It’s, like, at the Rabbi’s house, and all the food is home cooked,” she explained. A home cooked meal after what already seemed like an eternity of monotonous dining hall food? I was sold. With an open mind and an empty stomach, I went to what would be my first of many Shabbat dinners at the Scharf Family Chabad House.
I’ve learned a lot about Chabad (pronounced “Habad”) since then. Chabad is a Hasidic (read: Orthodox) Jewish movement and organization. The organization provides religious study groups, lessons on everything from the Talmud to Yiddish, and opportunities to volunteer and service the community in over 3,300 locations around the world. The Princeton Chabad House is located on University Place, right by the U-Store and is a pretty, cream-colored house with green trim that seems like any other residential house. Inside, Rabbi Webb, an energetic man with a full, ginger beard, and his wife Gitty, a kind-faced mother of five, welcome everyone into their home for classes, Torah studies, and social gatherings.
Friday night Shabbat dinner is probably one of the largest events they host every week, and it’s an impressive feat of Kosher food and creative table-setting to manage such a crowd. The first floor space is lined with bookshelves and religious texts, decorated with framed photographs of past Chabad events and guests, and a window seat runs along the entire east wall. It might seem big at first, but it quickly goes from cozy to crowded after the tables are set and the guests file in.
By the second time I went for Shabbat, Rabbi Webb knew me by name, and by the third or fourth time, I felt comfortable at Chabad. The organization is Orthodox Jewish, but I was reassured very early on that everyone, of any religion, was welcome. Slowly but surely, I’ve become a member of the Chabad community, learning about their faith, finding inspiration, meeting new friends, and coming to feel at home. It happened almost seamlessly, in those moments that seem cursory and unremarkable when they occur. Just because they don’t appear monumental, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t transformative.
It is the Friday before winter break. Molly, with whom I always attend Shabbat dinner, has already left for home, but my flight isn’t until tomorrow. While the thought of going alone made me slightly uneasy, I couldn’t bring myself to skip it. When I walk through the doors, I receive the usual warm, enthusiastic greeting from Rabbi Webb. “Good Shabbos!”
It feels like a more intimate event that night; we only need one table instead of the usual two. I was the only non-Jewish person in attendance. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly uncomfortable at first, but that was only because I was self-conscious. By the time we’re passing the challah around the table, I feel right at home. Some friends I already know and some faces need introduction, but all are friendly as we pass around the starting plates of salad, pasta, and hummus. I have so many reasons to be happy tonight. There had been tests and meningitis arm, but there had also been study groups, lively meals, and hall Secret Santa. Princeton was finally feeling like home, and Friday night dinner was no exception.
It is sometime in November and President Eisgruber is the special guest at Shabbat. Rabbi Webb must have extended the invitation, and tonight, he’s just another guest at Chabad. He is sitting at the center of window seat, and I hope for his sake that he isn’t claustrophobic. The house is packed, and everyone is in each other’s personal space. At some point during dinner, Rabbi Webb stands up to talk about the week’s Torah portion. It’s a sermon of sorts, typically interrupted by the youngest Webb child, four-year-old Shua, who serves as an excellent sideshow, climbing onto his father like a monkey and trying to snatch the black hat from his head. What can we take away from the reading this week? I listen attentively, pausing to laugh at Shua’s shenanigans, for what I’ve found is always a meaningful message clothed in religious verse.
Rabbi begins with the Torah reading and wanders from thought to thought until he comes to a conclusion. He reminds us that we, no matter who we are, have something to offer. I remember that I have a totally unique perspective from Mark to my right, Molly to my left, and Jenna in front of me. It’s hard to remember sometimes that no matter how overwhelmingly talented the people around me, no matter how much bigger their experiences or perspectives seem, I, too, have something to offer this world. I remember. I smile.
Now, it’s January, and the Torah reading is a little bit more complicated this week. To help properly explain the story, Rabbi recruits the help of Leibel, the oldest Webb child. He shakily moves to stand on his chair and nervously begins to speak, but he knows exactly what he’s talking about. As he talks, his voice grows more and more confident. When he’s finished, we turn to Rabbi Webb to hear the rest of the sermon.
“Thank you, Leibel. That was excellent. So much so, I don’t think I have anything else to add.” A smile spreads over Leibel’s face, and everyone congratulates him.
Soon, it’s the first week of March, and Rabbi Webb is talking about capitalization in the Torah. He tells us there is no capitalization in Hebrew, but in Genesis, the first letter of Adam’s name is larger than the others. It’s the only occurrence of this. He also tells us that in the portion about Moses is the only occurrence of a minimized letter. Greatness, he says, doesn’t stand on it’s own. If you are great, you cannot regard yourself as a capital letter, or you will be met with misfortune. We learn from Moses that humility is the greatest strength. You have to remember, no matter what, that you are not the best, and that you owe a lot of who you are to where you come from.
It is reading period, and somehow, I have sat down at a table among strangers. Before I can say anything, they are introducing themselves. We launch into conversation about finals, and then open the gates to other topics. “Oh, you mean hypothetical frats, right? As in, if you weren’t a freshman and I could talk to you about them? Yeah, so basically…” By the end of the meal, the conversation is very theoretical and contested. “No, no, you can’t disagree that with anyone that you hook up with, there is a standard period of awkwardness after…”
It is February, and I realize I have no idea how to open a bottle of wine. I introduce myself to the girl on my left, Julia, who talks me through the steps of using the corkscrew. “Don’t put your hands around the handles, they’re meant to lift as you twist the screw down… there you go.” I successfully open my first bottle of wine, and spend the meal getting to know Julia and Sarah’le, the Webbs’ only daughter, who is sitting by us and whose lively participation reminds me of my own younger eagerness to be recognized by “older” and “grown up” girls. It feels just like a typical girl’s night.
It is the next week in February, and I’ve just met Dalia and Hillary. Dalia has brought a boy with her. His name is Joe, he’s not Jewish, and I can tell he feels a little out of place. At some point during our meal, Dalia realizes “Maybe it was too early on to bring you to Chabad.” We all laugh. The next time Dalia is at Chabad is two weeks later. She shows up late and finds a seat at the end of a table, but midway through the meal, she walks over to where I am to say hello. I ask her how Joe is, she says that he actually really enjoyed dinner, and we agree that bringing a boy to Chabad is in many ways similar to bringing a boy home.
It is Valentine’s Day, and I’m at Chabad. There is no room to be upset about not having a date because dinner runs long, and Molly and I are one of the last people there. We’ve helped clear the tables, and now there are seven of us sitting around the table with Rabbi Webb and Gitty. The wine is still being poured, and the conversation is still loud and cheery. There are a couple of occurrences of singing and table banging, and the Shabbos prayer books are pulled out so that I can finally see the Kiddush prayer written out. In many ways, it is like my aunt’s house after a family gathering. I’m struck by how universal it is: lengthening post-dinner discussion because it’s just too excellent, too comfortable, too enjoyable to let go of yet.
“Really? You like Chabad?” I’ve brought up my appreciation for Chabad with another Jewish friend. I’ve found that not everyone is a fan. Responses have ranged from “I don’t know, I just don’t feel comfortable there.” to “They’re great and all, but I always get the feeling that Rabbi Webb is trying to set me up with a Jewish boy.” I’ve started to realize that maybe being not Jewish at Chabad is a unique vantage point. I’ve been welcomed into a religious group, but I’m a social member, with none of the pressure or obligation to adhere to the faith. It’s hard then, for me to wrap my head around it whenever someone says “I just don’t feel Jewish enough when I’m there.”
It’s a Tuesday, midday, and I’m at the Chabad house for lunch. Rabbi Webb introduces me as “Catalina, a non-Jewish Chabadnik.” It’s not incongruous. I don’t find it strange. It’s just what it is. I’ve become a member of a community that is centered on something I’m not a part of, really, but that hasn’t prevented my inclusion. I don’t feel the need to have a Jewish mother, to have become a bat mitzvah, or to share in the same faith. That’s not what the experience really comes down to at the end of the day. One of the most satisfying takeaways from my Chabad experience has been the way in which, despite not being Jewish, taking part has still been immensely rewarding; emotionally, spiritually, and socially. It’s about family and support and friendship before anything else.
The week before, Molly and I said thank you to Rabbi Webb and Gitty, started saying our goodbyes, and walked towards the coatroom. We stopped to say bye to Maya, who was there for the first time. She asked me if I come often. Lauren, president of the Chabad board, who was sitting by her, chimed in, “Oh, yes. They’re always here. They always come. And every time I see them it makes me so happy.”