By Menachem Posner – Chabad.edu
When Michael S. of Strasbourg, France, was considering pursuing his graduate studies at the HEC business school outside of Paris (called HEC Paris), he had some hard choices to make.
Michael—who prefers not to share his full name for reasons of personal security—says he feels that the HEC campus is a safe place, even a haven from the anti-Semitism that has roiled some parts of Paris: “People here are well-educated, so many of the threats we have seen in some suburbs of Paris don’t exist here. People are too busy with their studies.
“Yet, I am a religious Jew, and at that time, there was nothing Jewish there: no kosher food, no synagogue and no Jewish community,” says Michael, who just completed his second year in an HEC master’s program.
He decided to rent a room in a Jewish section of Paris, despite a long daily commute. He recalls the difficulty of maintaining a Jewish lifestyle without any supportive infrastructure. “But then everything changed, thanks to the work of Rabbi Levi and Bracha Mimoun, directors of Chabad on Campus in Saclay,” says the student, who has since taken a room on campus due to the blossoming of Jewish life there. He also credits the faculty of HEC, as well as another 11 smaller universities in the area, with maintaining an atmosphere of freedom and respect that is a breath of fresh air for students who have become accustomed to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel fervor on the streets of Paris.
Michael remembers the first Chabad event he attended shortly after arriving: a program for Sukkot, held aboard a sukkah on wheels in a parking lot on campus.
“I was surprised to see 60 students there,” he recalls. “I did not even know there were so many Jewish people on campus. The weather was bad, but everyone stayed. I think that people had acclimated to campus life, and they suddenly realized that they were missing Judaism in their lives.”
So Much So Quickly
Like many other students, Michael soon became a personal friend of the Mimouns, who are also the co-directors of Beth Loubavitch of Sceaux, about 20 minutes from Saclay. He spent many winter Shabbats in their home since classes often ended too late on Friday afternoons to allow him to return to Paris before the onset of the holy day at sundown.
And Mondays became another highlight of his week, as that was the day the rabbi delivered hot kosher lunches to students, as well as shared a Torah thought with them. “It was the only day I was not eating a cold sandwich,” he recalls.
What began as an ad hoc weekly kosher meal served out of a student’s dorm room became a steady occurrence in a classroom, and is now a twice-daily sit-down event at a brand-new Chabad House.
Finished in January, the new center includes a kosher kitchen with an airy dining room, student lounges, a sanctuary, a well-stocked library, as well as rooms for classes, study and games.
“Levi and Bracha have done an amazing job at transforming Jewish life on campus,” confirms Michael. “Today, students ask me about living in dorms on campus, and I tell them they have everything they need—daily kosher meals, Shabbat celebration, a homey and welcoming Chabad House just seconds away from the campus entrance. I don’t know how they managed to do so much so quickly.”
For his part, the rabbi says that he shares the credit with a very accommodating university faculty, who have supplied space and official recognition, as well as a cadre of donors that includes many HEC alumni, in addition to the Tabacinic family of Florida.
The Mimouns also expressed gratitude to David and Lara Slager of New York City, who supplied original seed money through the Chabad on Campus European Expansion Initiative, which allowed them to first open their center back in 2010.
Programming at a Whole New Level
Avraham Parienti, president of the Chabad association, says the new center has allowed the Mimouns, the parents of three children, to bring their programming to a whole new level. “They have gained the trust and admiration of the students and university faculty,” says the 40-year-old HEC alumnus, “so it was a natural decision to stand behind them in this project.”
Looking forward to the new school year—the first full year in his new Chabad House—the rabbi notes his many plans, ranging from bringing students to New York for the annual Chabad on Campus Shabbaton in November to another Shabbaton scheduled for the French Alps.
But for now, “there is so much we will be doing right in the Chabad House,” he says, including “prayers and a Shabbaton twice a month, lectures, kosher meals and everything else you expect in a Jewish community.”