Penn Group Jewish Heritage Programs Breaks Shabbat Dinner Record

University of Pennsylvania students choose challah and baked goods
University of Pennsylvania students choose challah and baked goods for use during Shabbat for 2,000. | Cody Mello-Klein

Close to 2,000 students lit candles and served challah across University of Pennsylvania’s campus on Oct. 12 as part of the Jewish Heritage Programs’ Shabbat for 2,000 event.

This year’s Shabbat for 2,000 registered 1,962 total participants across 162 simultaneous Shabbat dinners by 2 p.m., shattering previous years’ totals. The event, which supplies students who register with the essentials they need to host their own Shabbat dinners, aims to unite Jewish students — some non-Jewish students also held their own dinners — from across campus for one night.

“It’s a really good way to get students who are familiar with Shabbat or not to come together with their friends and have dinner,” said Raquel Levitt, the vice president of Jewish content and the student board member responsible for the event.

Leading up to the event, the pressure is on to hit the 2,000-student mark, and achieving that elusive goal is hard work. JHP has 85 student leaders — interns as they’re called — whose mission is to network and reach out to the various parts of campus from fraternities and sororities to sports teams and clubs. This year, prominent student groups, such as The Daily Pennsylvanian, hosted massive Shabbat dinners with upwards of 100 people.

“It reaches all kinds of cultures and gives them a little taste of Judaism,” said Rebecca Feldman, JHP’s campus coordinator.

Student leaders held “office hours” at a local Starbucks, during which students could learn a little bit about the event and sign up to host a dinner. On Oct. 12, registered hosts were able to pick up a Shabbat starter kit, complete with a prayer book, candles, matches, chicken, challah, kugel and salad, from JHP’s headquarters in Penn’s Lubavitch House.

The main room of the house became a massive pantry. A long table stacked with challah and cookies sat in the center of the room with refrigerators full of chicken and kugel set off to the side.

Throughout the afternoon, students entered empty-handed and left with bags of food. Board members and JHP staff waited with bated breath, as the number of participants increased hour to hour.

Reaching 2,000 people is no small feat, but, according to JHP’s Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, the act of getting students to organize and participate in the event is a rewarding in itself.

“The Jewish students, and especially these 85 that are our core, the fact that they’re reaching out increases their Jewish identity,” Schmidt said. “It’s an educational opportunity for them, it reinforces it, and it’s an exciting opportunity for them. It also creates more understanding on the campus.”

Levitt admits that JHP’s reach can always be greater — the Jewish community at Penn is around 4,000 students — but said the event’s success this year proves that Shabbat for 2,000 is a valued part of campus life, even for non-Jewish students who make up a quarter of the event’s participants. It’s a chance for Jewish students to embrace their identity, get free food and, most importantly, understand the value of rest.

“The idea is to take something and keep something holy, to do something other than what you normally do,” said Ally Schoenberg, JHP’s vice president of social action. “That’s something that can apply to anyone and is a helpful tactic when we’re so busy with our schoolwork.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a freelance writer.


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