Jewish Longhorns Year in Review
By Jordana Hoffman
For the last decade, Rabbi Zev and Ariela Johnson, co-directors of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Texas at Austin, have been opening up their Shabbat table and their hearts to UT students.
They give Jewish students a home away from home as well as a connection and place to learn about and practice Judaism. They welcome any and every Jew. But this year was different because this year, Rabbi Zev and Ariela made a commitment to go bigger.
Shabbat dinners are a staple in Jewish life, but they can be a lot of work to put together, especially for large groups of people without a reservation. But that never stops Chabad at UT. This school year they hosted more than 30 Shabbats. In going bigger they didn’t stop there; many of the Shabbats had themes, such as Pink Shabbat in October for breast cancer awareness, Shabbat Shaloha in January, and of course, a Super Bowl Shabbat.
Had they done only Shabbats and major holidays – dayenu – it would have been enough. But of course the Johnsons did not stop there. Excluding Shabbats, the Johnsons held nearly 50 individual events focused on either Jewish holidays, education or community building.
Chabad’s top three events of the year were the High Holidays, Kosh’ella and the Mega Challah Bake. To start the year off with a bang, the Johnsons went bigger with the High Holidays. Two hundred and thirty five students attended services and dinner for Erev Rosh Hashanah alone.
Over the entirety of the High Holidays including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the blowing of the Shofar, nearly 600 students celebrated with the Johnson family. This was the largest high holiday attendance since the Johnsons came to UT 10 years ago.
Kosh’ella was Chabad’s Purim festival, where they brought the Kosher to Coachella. This Purim-themed celebration included a Megillah reading; student musician Ari Elisha; a photo booth; hamantaschen; mask decorating; flower crowns; and ping pong. Students over 21 got a special treat, as Tubi 60 partnered with Chabad and provided this special drink from Haifa. And of course, no one could forget the incredible costumes.
Chabad’s Mega Challah Bake event differed from the other hot events of the year in that it did not have a direct connection to a holiday. Instead this event was an opportunity for students to learn about the laws and practicalities that surround challah. After a little bit of learning, students got to get their hands dirty with their own challahs. Some kept it traditional and went for a three strand braid, while others got ambitious and attempted five strand braids. Whatever the number of strands, all of the challahs were beautiful and exceedingly tasty.
Undergraduate students are not the only people who get to benefit from the outstanding dedication of the Johnson family. Chabad has a whole group dedicated to graduate students – JGrads. Together with the the JGrads board, the Johnsons have worked hard to create programming specifically for grad students.
This innovative programing included starting a first Friday Booze and Shmooze, ThanksSpinning Early Hanukkah with JGrads, and the JGrads Purim event Megillah and Mixology, the most popular JGrads event of the year.
This spring, Chabad at UT put on a Mega Grad Shabbat, which was one of their most successful Shabbat events of the year.
Another important group that Chabad at UT nurtures is JTribe. JTribe is a Jewish,student-led grassroots organization whose mission is to unite Austin’s college-aged Jewish community. This past year has been a huge breakout year, as JTribe coordinated six more events than last year, including the Shabbat Across Campus Hallmark event. For this event, JTribe made boxes filled with all supplies necessary to put on a Shabbat dinner: the prayers, candles, and even food.
Then they delivered these boxes to participants all over campus. This is their second year doing this event and they really took it to the next level by delivering 125 percent more Shabbat boxes than last year.
Events and holidays are not the only Jewish enrichment that Chabad provides. Rabbi Zev also offers one on one learning with students. In these sessions, Rabbi Zev meets with students to discuss and explore Judaism, specifically Jewish mysticism, and how Jewish teachings are applicable and can be meaningful in daily life.
All of this is only possible due to the dedication and hard work of the Chabad at UT team, including students and external support. Because of them, Chabad got to go bigger this past December with their fundraising Charidy campaign. Due to donations from Chabad’s supporters they raised $221,567 in 24 hours and beat their $200,000 goal. This monumental achievement was made possible due to the generous benefactors who agreed to match every dollar donated in that 24 hour period and quadruple it. In addition, six student teams competed to see who could raise the most for this organization that is so crucial to their Jewish life on campus; their efforts launched this fund drive above and beyond.
The Charidy Campaign was a success, but Chabad at UT is a constantly growing organization and help is always appreciated.
To provide support with a donation, visit www.jewishlonghorns.com. Or go bigger and become a Chabad Shares member, which allows donations on a monthly or yearly basis to consistently support holidays, events and Jewish learning opportunities at Chabad.
The school year has come to an end, but the work at Chabad is never finished. Rabbi Zev recently returned from leading a Birthright Trip in Israel with 84 students.
All of this takes a lot of elbow grease and care, but Rabbi Zev and Ariela Johnson are very excited to do it all again this coming fall and continuing their goal of taking it to the next level. ■