College Homecomings. A time for college team pride, home court advantage, tailgate barbecues, and celebrations. Homecoming this year at Rutgers had a whole new meaning for hundreds of students from Sephardic backgrounds with the opening of the new Sephardic Synagogue in Chabad House, the first and only Sephardic shul on a public university in the United States. Rutgers students who hail from our area’s Sephardic communities including Deal, W. Long Branch, and Eatontown, in New Jersey, and Brooklyn, NY, gathered together for a unique, home-style Syrian Knights Shabbat celebration at Chabad during the highly anticipated homecoming Rutgers game against Wisconsin. Catering to this special and growing population at Rutgers, Chabad House rabbis, student leaders and staff worked for days inviting and preparing for the over 335 college students who attended the Sephardic home away from home “SY” Shabbat weekend.
The festivities began in the new Franco and Ashkenazi Family Sephardic Synagogue in the Chabad House with a very lively Shabbat service led by Rutgers Sophomore Isaac Sasson of Eatontown, chanting the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers with distinctive Syrian tunes. “It was so inspiring to hear all the Sephardic students all chime in at once when they recognized the tunes of their families’ culture,” exclaimed Aliza Bernstein, a Rutgers Junior participant. “I enjoyed hearing all the different melodies, ones that I’d never heard before growing up in East Brunswick.”
After services, the massive crowd of students made their way to Chabad’s gigantic dining room where they were treated to an authentic Syrian Shabbat cuisine of homebaked challah breads baked by the Sephardic women of Chabad, a kibbeh hamdah chicken-lentil soup with mini meatballs and matzah balls, lahmajun ground beef rounds, kibbeh, a torpedo-shaped fried croquette stuffed with minced beef and lamb, and Aleppo lace chocolate cookies.
Student leaders welcomed the participants with introductory speeches by co-Presidents Jackie Roberman and Josh Herzfeld, as well as Vice President Mitch Seigel, who highlighted the “amazing unity that exists on campus, where students for all backgrounds come together as one, and celebrate our different customs and unique qualities.” Rabbi Baruch Goodman, Campus Director, spoke of the “major contributions to Jewish life around the world, and on campus at Rutgers, by the Sephardic students. Their powerful spiritual sensitivity and love for G-d’s mitzvot (commandments) are truly exemplary. They very much set the pace for enthusiastic Jewish identity and involvement on campus.” During the meal, Syrian Jewish songs were sang and divrei Torah quoting Syrian chachamim were said over by Chabad’s Educational Director Rabbi Shaya Shagalow and student volunteers.
Student organizers included Alexa Golden, Jasmine Moradi, Nathan Ades, Oriel Arusy, Odette Ades, Jesse Antebi, Evan Mahgarefteh, Joe Epstein, David Dahan, Tomer Weber, Eliana Ely, Al Sultan, Elad Mashiach, and Michael Abady.
Chabad provides daily Sephardic and Ashkenazic services for the students at Rutgers University, along with regularly held Sephardic-themed Shabbatonim – Shabbat experiences, with authentic foods of Syria, Iran (Persian cuisine), Egypt, Iraq and Morocco. Rutgers Sophomore Jesse Antebi commented, “when I first came to Chabad in my freshman year, it was very nice, but now that I have a synagogue and full program of cultural activities based around my own customs, I’m amazed. You rabbis take really good care of us! It keeps getting better and better, thank you!”
Although our Scarlet Knights Football team did not do too well against Wisconsin, to say the least, everyone who attended the Syrian Knights Shabbat Weekend felt like a real winner.