By Joel Yacoob, Cardozo Jurist
On a recent Friday night, in front of a Jewish art gallery in Chelsea, pedestrians dressed in an assortment of Park Avenue boutique wear could be seen stopping and looking through its floor-to-ceiling glass walls. What caught their eyes was not the art on the walls, which served merely as decoration for the evening, but rather the boisterous intermingling of 50 Cardozo students. Wine glasses in hand, students were leaning on cocktail tables dipping homemade Challah into an assortment of dips. The crowd was having fun, and the sommelier could barely keep up with the requests for refills.
It was the Chabad of Cardozo Shabbat Dinner and Wine Tasting. Hosts to the evening’s event were Rabbi Chezky Wolff, his wife Perry, and her teenaged sister Eliza, who came along to help serve food and chat fashion with many of the well-dressed attendees. The Rabbi had recently moved to Manhattan to become a Chabad Lubavitch Schliach (emissary) to Cardozo, the New School, and the surrounding smaller schools.
At the dinner, Rabbi Wolff, when not prodding his guests to introduce themselves, or sing along with him to out-of-tune songs, spoke about his excitement to begin programs for the Jewish students and the potential positive impact his presence could have. After a few customary l’chaims, the host became as lively as the guests who had been sipping wine and socializing for the hour before dinner was served. Discussion around the various dinner tables set with imperial gold plastic-wear was diverse. One topic that seemed to be off-limits was anything law related—the students were bent on focusing on anything but how much reading they had for the week. They were taking full advantage of the Jewish day of rest, and that is exactly how the Rabbi wanted the evening to be.
Emerging from the ashes of the Holocaust at the behest of their leader, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, young couples such as the Wolffs have been moving to university campuses and far off communities to establish Jewish presences. To train for such an odd job, the Rabbi and Rebitzen respectively spent their teenage years traveling throughout America, Africa, and Europe running Jewish camps, hosting Seders, and in the Rabbi’s case offering to put on tefilin (Jewish phylacteries) with any Jew he met during those travels—none of which was particularly different from what they grew up doing in Morristown, New Jersey, and Indianapolis, Indiana, their respective hometowns.
Funding for their activities comes largely from a grant by philanthropist George Rohr, who has spent millions of dollars helping couples like the Wolffs establish themselves at universities around the country.
Bringing Jews together to celebrate their heritage in relaxed and often innovative ways (Huka in the Sukka, wine tasting Shabbat dinners, lunch and learn programs) is what Chabad does best. “Every Jew is a gem; my job is to let that gem shine,” the Rabbi said at the end of the evening. His sincerity is unquestionable and a trait that the group as a whole seems to carry, but for people unaccustomed to their enthusiasm they can seem pushy and relentless. “Not to worry,” the Rabbi said at mention of the venting of this issue by a few Cardozo students. “I am here as a facilitator and a resource; if a student wants a mezuza, a place to go for High Holiday services, a home cooked Shabbat meal, or someone to talk to, I’m here for them unconditionally, regardless of their level of observance, political or religious beliefs.” This is a point he went on to stress, and it was clear he meant it.
While this may placate some, he and his wife know that challenges still exist—primarily, the fact that they are Orthodox, Chassidim nonetheless. This means that you will be greeted with a warm smile but not the customary handshake if you’re a girl saying hello to the Rabbi, or a guy outstretching your arm to the Rebitzen, because they do not touch the opposite sex. Additionally, men and women do not sit together in shul during prayer, which is a hot-button issue on its own for students who are likely accustomed to mixed seating in Conservative and Reform temples. While stereotypes and misconceptions abound, the couple hopes that students will give them a fair chance and ask questions rather then judge based on appearance or hearsay.
You can meet the Rabbi each week on campus during lunch on dates announced weekly on the group’s Facebook page when he teaches his informal Lunch ‘n’ Law, a comparative course of Jewish and secular law. Food is included and the atmosphere is very casual; questions are the only thing Rabbi Wolff requests that students bring with them. If you find yourself stressing about giving up an hour of your day at school, there will be a number of upcoming social events for students to take part in.