Hundreds probe Jewish issues and identity as part of year-long Hakhel project
Like most pilot projects, there was no guarantee that it would get off the ground. But not only did it take off, the Jewish unity project and its results have lingered with participants long after the actual experiences.
To celebrate the Hakhel year—occurring every seven years and representing a time when Jews of all ages get together to learn, converse and inspire one another—the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life at Binghamton University in Upstate New York jump-started a program encouraging students to organize small gatherings of friends, and take it from there.
The ball got rolling rather quickly. More than 450 students became involved in about 50 individual peer-to-peer gatherings under the name “Unite4Purpose.” Leaders first attended a kick off-brunch that included a discussion about Hakhel, the project, and practical and technical tips for success.
“Even though we see each other every day, we’d never gathered in this way before,” said Ariel Kutcher, an English major and junior from Hewlett, N.Y., who hosted a gathering, including conversation and challah-baking, at his fraternity. “We all spoke about our connection to Judaism, and we’d never done that before either, without a rabbi around. We were able to speak freely because we were just among friends.
“I realize now that we shouldn’t take our Jewish community for granted,” he added, “and should build our Jewish connection, rather than leave it for one big event.”
The meetings weren’t all talk. In addition to challah-baking and matzah-ball-rolling, activities that boosted the students’ time together included crafting Havdalah candles and decorating tzedakah boxes. Student leaders were responsible for organizing their friends and planning the events, while the Chabad center provided a full guide to Hakhel observance, resources, food, talking points and questions to discuss.
Freshman Nicole Lalezarzadeh, a finance major from Great Neck, N.Y., explained that “my friends are not really in touch with their Jewish background, so this was a nice introduction for them of what our religion entails. It was also nice to take a leadership role, and see that now my friends really want to come to the Chabad center.”
What Makes You Proud?’
According to Rabbi Levi Slonim, Chabad’s director of programming and development, what differentiated the Hakhel project was the way it evolved. Young men and women embraced the idea of meeting on their own—without the presence of a religious leader—and encouraged their peers to do the same.
As such, Slonim notes, the project was inspired by the contemporary Hakhel-year vision articulated over many years by the Lubavitcher Rebbe–Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory–who encouraged all Jews to assert personal leadership and utilize this auspicious time to assemble and encourage each other to increase in Torah observance and study.
In biblical times, once every seven years at the conclusion of the shemittah year, the king of Israel would ascend upon a platform in Jerusalem and read sections of the holy Torah to the nation gathered there for the Sukkot holiday.
Thus, the responsibility to arrange Hakhel gatherings, the Rebbe pointed out, lies primarily on the “kings”—i.e., the leaders of each community, its rabbis, and, in fact, anyone in a position of influence—and that, says Slonim, most definitely includes student leaders.
Spreading the Message
After each gathering in Binghamton, the groups posted pictures of participants and activities on social media to spread the message of unity, in effect reaching far more people than those involved in the live meetings.
“The difference with this program was that it was an opportunity to get together focused on the importance of ‘getting together,’ specifically for the sake of strengthening Jewish identity, connection and pride,” he explained. “The focus was on what brings us together and unites us, which is our unique and individual connection to G d.”
Questions for discussion included: “When do you feel your Jewish identity is most expressed?”; “Why do you think it’s important for Jews to unite?”; “What makes you proud to be Jewish?”; “As a Jew, what do you think your purpose is?”
The answers were honest and powerful, particularly to the first question.
Responses that students submitted on cards included everything from “when I daven during class in the morning because I don’t have time to do it in my room,” “in my day-to-day life when I think about the mitzvot I am performing” and “when I go about my everyday life doing Jewish activities” to “during Havdalah, when the community enjoys each other’s company at the conclusion of Shabbat” and “when I discuss with others why I do what I do, and why I refrain from taking part in certain things, like going out on Friday nights.”
As for why it’s important for Jews to unite, students proffered: “To share our stories and celebrate our continued resilience,” “to create a sense of community,” “to achieve things bigger than ourselves,” and, perhaps most tellingly, “because if we don’t have each other’s backs, who will?”
‘The Depth of Our Conversation’
Freshman Talia Laserson from Beachwood, Ohio, described her experiences with the project.
“Sitting around a table with 10 of my friends in the basement of Chabad, we discussed the importance of Jewish unity and when it is that we feel most connected to our Jewish identity as we waited for our pizza to cook. As I listened to what all of my friends had to say, I was stunned by the depth of our conversation and our unique connections that we each had to our Jewish identities. A couple of days later, I attended another Hakhel event. After the discussion, we enjoyed a meaningful kumzits, during which we sang some of our favorite Jewish songs. As we sat there singing ‘Vehi Sh’Amda,’ I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratefulness.
“Although I experienced the feeling of being part of a Jewish community practically everywhere I went throughout my life,” she continued, “until now, I never really took the time to ponder its importance and to celebrate its exceptionality. These Hakhel events gave me the necessary reminder that being a part of the Jewish community at Binghamton—and a part of the Jewish nation as a whole—is not just a given, it’s a tremendous privilege, and it’s something to celebrate.”
Reuvena Leah Grodnitzky (Chabad.org)