A Harvard Center for the Jewish Community
October 12, 2013 was like any other Friday night at the Harvard Chabad house. Eighty-odd people crammed around five long tables noshed and sang under the light of the dining room. Whenever a table completed a bottle of wine, a man or woman from the kitchen would replace it instantly. Whenever one of the courses was completed, another would take its place. Matzo ball soup, roasted chicken, brisket, salad with mango, gefilte fish, sweet potato pie, cookies, and orzo are only a sampling of the dishes served. Most of those who brought the food were modestly dressed women in headscarves.
The men of the house wore traditional Orthodox attire – black top hats, bulky coats, and tallits. While the guests, who were almost invariably in far more secular business casual attire, ate and laughed, Rabbi Herschy Zarchi circled the room, shaking hands and engaging in focused conversation with seemingly every single person present.
Zarchi appeared remarkably calm and collected while presiding over the banquet, often beaming and laughing heartily in conversation with the attendees. The scene was a perfect advertisement for Harvard Chabad and the larger movement, whose unique journey from relative obscurity and marginalization to center of college Judaic life appears near complete.
The focus on individual attention given by the entire Chabad House is palpable. Zarchi has an astonishing social memory and routinely asks questions like, “Is your throat feeling better?” or “How is the internship application going?” to guests who have only visited once or twice. The result is an unexpectedly intimate and almost familial atmosphere.
Zarchi, bespectacled, youthful, and full of energy, sees room for growth despite the consistently packed Friday night dinners. Recently, the rabbi has recommended RSVPing through email; though those who forget to RSVP are just as welcome no matter how packed the house is. An avid and enthusiastic planner, Zarchi embraces the challenge of encouraging a predominantly undergraduate-age and often Reform demographic show up to dinner on Friday night. “All of our events have capacity crowds at the Chabad House. Give me a space twice, three times, four times the size, and we will fill it!” As it stands now, the house is gorgeous, made up of three immaculate floors. A basement houses restrooms and coatroom, the first floor – a small wooden synagogue, and the second – the dining room, kitchen, and residence.
The Chabad movement is a Brooklyn Heights-based group of Orthodox Jews who identify with the teachings of a particular paternal line of Russian rabbis. The last of the line, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is thought by a percentage of Chabad to be the messiah (Moshiach) or to have some sort of significance to an upcoming Messianic movement. Zarchi commented upon Scheerson’s invaluable role in expanding the movement and acting as its centerpiece: “The Rebbe passed away in 1994 and his physical absence leaves an enormous void. However, his spirit, vision, and teachings continue to guide and inspire the movement.” The movement has spread to 70 countries with over 3,600 Chabad houses worldwide.
Zarchi is a member of the Chabad National Campus Board, in addition to his role as leader of the Harvard branch, and has given much of his life to spreading its tenets. “I was born into the world of Chabad and have been a part of it ever since. The world view, values and focus [of the movement] have not changed and remain to bring the beauty of Judaism imbued with the light and teachings of Chassidut, with unconditional love, to Jews everywhere,” he says.
I was born into the world of Chabad and have been a part of it ever since… The focus remains to bring the beauty of Judaism imbued with the light and teachings of Chassidut, with unconditional love, to Jews everywhere.
The depth of his knowledge and passion for the movement, and larger Judaism, is clear in his teachings. At the dinner, he delivered a moving lecture before the main course was served about the week’s Parsha, or Torah portion, Lech Lecha. Zarchi, accompanied by his young son, who recited a prayer before the talk, delved into the text, which describes Abraham’s initial covenant with God and the beginning of the concept of the Israelites as God’s “Chosen People.” Bringing the text into the contemporary sphere, Zarchi offered a politically charged vision of the Jewish diaspora in which God elevated the Jews and punished those who persecuted them. Complete with allusions to World War II and Israel, the talk went right at the most discussed and difficult legacies of 20th century Judaism and offered an empowering vision of divine retribution.
The talk presented one of the fundamental tenets of the Chabad movement: A powerful love for the entire Jewish community, not just those who are Orthodox or directly involved. Zarchi repeatedly made reference to the “unconditional embrace regardless of degree of observance or lack thereof.” The non-judgmental code of Chabad allows it to avoid the discomfort of proselytizing and pressure. Sophomore Jonathan Ascherman, a frequent attendee of Shabbat dinners, commented upon the positive attitude fostered by Harvard Chabad’s, saying that, “They are some of the most welcoming, friendly people on campus and will always be happy to host you. I think it will continue to be that ‘home away from home’ for me.”
Harvard Chabad first opened its doors in 1997 and, according to Zarchi, “its immediate success and explosive growth have set in motion a massive expansion of the establishment of permanent Chabad centers exclusively focused on College campuses.” Although a major exemplar and innovator in the present boom, Harvard’s Chabad was by no means the first House; UCLA’s Chabad, the first permanent collegiate installation, was founded in 1969. The director, Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, stresses many of the same tenets and beliefs as Zarchi, citing the importance of a non-judgemental space and even sending a link to an informational site on the significance of the Moshiach.
Rabbi Gurevich also commented on the differences between Chabad attendees on the East and West Coast: “Generally, I think the East Coast Jews are ‘more Jewish,’ meaning culturally more aware and involved,” though also recognizing that the deviation in knowledge only leads to “slight variations and adaptations of the approach.” Gurevich also stressed the desire for more financial and organizational support in far more direct ways than Zarchi’s desire for more space. Gurevich also acknowledged that the vision of “a more perfected messianic world” was a “bit utopian in nature,” but that the focus of the organization towards students was far more pragmatic.
They are some of the most welcoming, friendly people on campus and will always be happy to host you. I think it will continue to be that ‘home away from home’ for me.
Chabad isn’t just about formal Shabbat dinners. The House organizes challah baking on Thursday, Chinese food on Tuesday nights, and a community service initiative on Sundays called Friendship Circle, which encourages friendship between special-needs children and local students. The ability for men like Rabbis Zarchi and Gurevich to lead outposts of a movement that is relatively remote to many in ideology, strip it down, and leave an accepting, delicious, and vibrant student organization has truly shifted the college landscape in an unexpected and remarkable way.