Chabad at UT Starts Off Year with a Bang | Shalom Austin

Chabad at UT Starts Off Year with a Bang

Community News, The Jewish Outlook

Nov 23, 2021

Students gather together, excited for Shabbat at Chabad. Photo courtesy of Chabad at UT.

By Chana Filler

Josh wasn’t sad about being far away from home for the holidays this year, he was actually excited. But that’s not how he had felt last year as a freshman. “It’s difficult being away from home, especially being in a different culture,” Josh says, reflecting on his freshman year in University of Texas at Austin. Many students relate to this sentiment; college life is overwhelming and it takes time to find one’s place amid the academic and social expectations. This was even more true for Josh, who traveled from down under to study at UT. In addition to having to acclimate to a college environment, he knew he’d have to make sense of American culture as well.

As the high holidays approached, he grew increasingly apprehensive. He had always celebrated holidays with family, often frequenting the Chabad synagogue in Sydney. “When I think about the high holidays, being with my dad in Shul and going to spend that special time with him and my community brings up really special memories,” Josh says. With college culture being so different from what he knew, he wondered how that would affect Jewish life on a college campus.

Chabad UT Holidays

Friends gear up for a Shabbat dinner together with hundreds of Jewish students. Photo courtesy of Chabad at UT.

Josh soon learned that while there are many differences between Australian and American culture, he’d end up feeling right at home as far as Judaism was concerned. “I was a bit nervous, but Chabad is so connected – being in a place that shares so many values with what I grew up with was so incredible,” Josh says. He had such a great time, in fact, that when the High Holidays came around this year, he looked forward to spending them at Chabad,even though he wouldn’t be home with his family. “The Johnsons are my family away from home, so I was actually very excited this time around.”

Josh is one of hundreds of Jewish students on campus who Rabbi Zev and Ariela Johnson, co-directors at Chabad of UT at Austin, connected with during the high holidays. They run a full-time operation, bringing the beauty of Judaism to the thousands of Jewish students on campus. Over the course of the high holidays, hundreds of students came to Chabad for holiday meals, services and events. On Rosh Hashanah, the Johnsons hosted over 200students for holiday dinner, and then crashed the Jewish fraternity and sorority houses on campus to blow Shofar for the Jewish students there. From Rosh Hashanah alone they had close to s600 student experiences. “It was one of our largest Rosh Hashanahs ever,” Rabbi Zev says, incredulous. On Sukkot, Chabad’s Sukkah was packed with 150 students who came to enjoy Sushi in the Sukkah; many of whom were sitting in a Sukkah for the first time.

Due to Chabad’s efforts to stay safe during the COVID pandemic, the Johnsons host all their meals outdoors. “At one point,” Ariela says, “it started raining and students began coming inside for cover. It was crazy. We ended up serving the second course with one hundred plus students sitting directly on the floor. Chicken, rice, the whole deal! The next day I woke up and couldn’t believe I did that,” she laughs. But although it can get hectic, the Johnsons are committed to doing everything they can to satisfy the students’ thirst for a Jewish connection. UT Austin’s campus is swarming with students like Josh, and they’ve got their work cut out for them. ■

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