Baltimore Jewish Times- "A College Park Shabbat"

A major feature of the Orthodox Union’s Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program—which is found on 15 major campuses in the United States and Canada, including the University of Maryland in College Park—is Friday night Shabbos dinner, in which the young rabbi and his wife who run the program (the Torah Educators, as they are known), invite students to share their table and Shabbat joy with them. This happens week after week, throughout the academic year. At Maryland, Rabbi Eli and Naomi Kohl open their doors to their students. In the following report, Naomi explains how it is done – and what the benefits are, to the students and to the Kohl family.

To make a great Shabbos meal you need three cups of energy, a spoonful of spirit, and a teaspoon of love. Monday morning in the Hillel dining hall is when we begin our weekly preparations. Between a chavrusa (a one-on-one student session) and a casual shmooze with a student, I keep a watchful eye as I mentally prepare an invitation list. If I don’t strike quickly an upperclassmen may extend an invitation and it may be months before that particular student may grace our Shabbat table. The University of Maryland is home to more than 400 Orthodox students and we try to have them all over for a meal, at some point during their college experience.

Friday is when the games begin. I hustle twenty minutes to Silver Spring, drop my two-year-old son, Yisrael, off at school and then proceed to the kosher establishments in town, to procure my ingredients. After purchasing these goodies I hurry back to College Park to begin cooking. My husband watches our six-month-old baby girl, Shira, while I slice, dice and mash the ingredients, occasionally with the assistance of a helpful student. Many Fridays it seems like I won’t beat the clock, but I always end up finishing just before the buzzer sounds. I breathe a sigh a of relief when I light the Shabbos candles, as my husband goes off to shul for four hours for davening, learning and the famed Hillel social hour.

The Magic Number:

Eli returns home with 12-15 students, the magic number. This ensures that our group is small enough to fit around our table and that we can all participate in one conversation. There are always one or two more students than originally expected, due to my husband’s over-inviting disorder, which Hakodosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One, Blessed Be He) matched nicely, with my over-cooking disorder. The avirah (atmosphere) is a very homey experience—that is what the students smell, taste and feel when they come over.

They are greeted from outside by our son, who is patiently waiting by the window for his “friends” to come over. Many students are looking for a home away from home and we feel privileged to help provide that during their college years. During these years students are making many crucial life decisions. They are asking themselves, “Who will I marry and how will that shape my future; what will my home look like; what will my Shabbat and religious experiences be when I am an adult?” Perhaps this is why we view the Shabbat experience with students as the most important interaction we will have with them.

By modeling a Jewish home that has a mezuzah, Shabbos candles and Jewish books, filling our Shabbos table with song, soup, and spirituality, we hope to inspire students to continue to strive towards a lifestyle infused with Torah values and meanings. We feel responsible to model a Jewish family for students, as we may be a reference point for future relationships they may have. To foster a sense of family we invite groups of students who are friendly with each other. If they are comfortable with each other, they will feel more at ease in our home. As friends they may already know each other well, yet we feel it is important to have our trademark parsha-themed ice breakers. They serve as a way of infusing the table with Torah, in a non- threatening way, and give the students an opportunity to say what’s on their minds.

Students are always afraid that when they go to their “rabbi’s house” they will be grilled on the parsha and their lives. Our approach is a way to break down those barriers and to connect the Torah to their lives. For example: on Parshat Miketz with Yosef’s dreams, we would ask, what’s a crazy dream you once had, or what are your dreams and aspirations; on Lech Lecha, their trials and tribulations.

While fish, soup and salad satiate some, there is not a hungry soul at the table when the meat, chicken and deli roll are done. The conversations vary as do the crowds—some want to talk about pop culture, social networks, high school stories or Israel adventures; others like to hear the rabbi’s philosophical views on a slew of geopolitical issues and old war stories from his childhood in Brooklyn; while others like to read our children their favorite stories on the couch. Many students offer their help to serve the food; what I most enjoy is the opportunity it provides to have one-on-one conversations with students I rarely have the time for during the week.

It’s Oneg Time!

As the meal seems to be winding down, we hear a knock at the door and are greeted with a burst of energy. Once a month, 60 or more additional students battle the elements to get a taste of our Friday night cholent and desserts as well as an unbeatable dose of spirituality which carries into the week. Students come from all across the country to be a part of the incredible community that exists at Maryland. Many are from Baltimore and Silver Spring but just as many come from New York, New Jersey, Florida, Chicago, California, Atlanta and more. Our onegs often begin as hip hop music is blaring from the fraternity house next door. As many as 100 Jewish souls may combat those tunes with niggunim of our own, and the fragrant scent of Oneg Shabbos suppresses the aromatic fragrances that are often found on a college campus.

For many students, we are able to provide this oasis that they crave and reawaken a slumbering spirit that may have become stagnant from the mounds of school work. Our onegs are sprinkled with inspiring stories and thoughts as many of our students are eager to share their thoughts with each other, and to encourage their peers to continue striving towards goals they may have set for themselves as they were leaving for their year in Israel. We try to pause these moments to remind ourselves why exactly we moved to the middle of a college campus, but as we embrace the last of our students close to 1:00 am and receive our final thank you, we are sure there is no place we would rather be than at the University of Maryland!