Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Including Shabbat 500
By Amy Brazda
As the iconic slogan goes, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” This was the concept behind the planning and implementation of 2018’s Shabbat 500, a celebratory Shabbat welcoming more than 500 students to the Texas Union Ballroom at the University of Texas at Austin.
The event’s history dates back to 1998 when the Levertov family of Chabad Lubavitch of Austin and student, Moshe Chess, wanted to bring together for one Shabbat 1,000 Jewish students of all denominations, across the state, through 2006.
Shabbat 500 was nonexistent after 2006 until Talia Noorily and Daley Epstein rekindled the event in 2014 after a trip to Israel. Ever since, Shabbat 500 has been a student-led event that attracts Jewish students, faculty, alumni, families and non Jews.
Co-chair Shirel Miller, sophomore mathematics major from Austin, is a regular at Chabad @ UT and Texas Hillel’s Shabbat feasts. Her love of Shabbat was instilled by her parents who maintained Shabbat at home. This “gift” inspired her to chair the event.
Miller explained, ”I was not hesitant to share the beauty of Shabbat with 500 Jewish students.”
Co-chair Lauren Rubenstein of Houston added, “Growing up, Shabbat was a huge part of my week and my Jewish identity. As co-chair of Shabbat 500 I felt it would be great for me to reignite my love of Shabbat and share the experience with 500 people from around UT.”
Other members of the student Shabbat 500 team included Jessie Sureck, sophomore from Dallas and the event’s financial supervisor, and fundraising co-chairs Kelsey Feinberg, sophomore finance major from California and member of AEPhi, and Halle Brazda, sophomore journalism major from Houston and member of Kappa Delta sorority. They held a bingo night and profit share at Cold Cookie Company that netted more than $600. Fundraising efforts topped $17,000, which exceeded the team’s $15,000 goal.
Marketing co-chairs were Emily Berk, sophomore sociology major from New York, and Jonah Camberg, sophomore communications major from California. Logistics chairs included Emily Levin, sophomore nutrition major from Michigan, and Mia Spigelman, senior supply chain management major. Max Harberg, sophomore advertising major and member of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, and Rachel Mitchell, sophomore Plan II Honors major from Dallas, served as programming chairs.
The evening began with time for guests to mingle at a reception, followed by a welcome by student leaders and rabbis’ wives who lit Shabbat candles. Rabbi Zev Johnson and Rabbi Yaakov Kirschbaum recited the kiddush and hamotzi before dinner. Dessert was provided by 3 Brothers Bakery, and after the program concluded, three student-led services were offered.
Rabbi Moshe Trepp, Texas Hillel Jewish Learning Fellowships educator, and Rebbetzen Ariela Johnson, UT alumnus and co-director of Chabad @ UT, helped with all facets of the event. Five Israeli soldiers, in addition to senior Colton Becker, UT student body president, were in attendance.
Miller explained one of the goals this year, especially in light of students on campuses around the country seemingly disconnected and affected by anti-Semitism, was to extend invitations to students unfamiliar with Shabbat.
“It was our mission to reach out to those who are not familiar with Shabbat and show them an enriched and ageless Jewish custom,” Miller said.
Lauren Jackson, Kappa Delta sorority member and Shabbat 500 attendee, explained, “I felt very comfortable and welcomed when I was there, regardless of the fact that I’m not Jewish. It didn’t seem to matter, and I would definitely go back on any Friday night to participate again.”
Freshman member of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity, Ian Artz, said, ”Shabbat 500 was an amazing experience to be a part of because of the interaction I had with so many Jewish people across the UT campus.”
Felix Schigel, also a member of Sigma Alpha Mu and a junior from Houston agreed, adding, “Shabbat 500 is an event where you realize just how strong the Jewish community is at UT when everyone comes together. It is a reminder that as a young Jewish adult you have a home here on campus to celebrate Shabbat. It was great to share the night with so many.”