Some call it the most powerful 25 hours in kiruv – a powerful and inspiring Shabbaton. No matter how many classes a student attends or how many hours of learning he or she experiences, nothing is as life-changing as witnessing an entire Shabbos; especially if it’s spent with welcoming families, friends, and teachers, and features delicious food, an oneg, and uplifting learning and discussions.
On Shabbos Parshas Chayei Sarah, 22 Stony Brook University students discovered the beauty of Shabbos in Kew Gardens. They witnessed a Carlebach-style Kabalas Shabbos, an emotional Friday night program, a nearly three-hour Q&A session, chavrusa learning, a stimulating Shalosh Seudos, and a musical Havdalah performed by a professional musician and masterful singer.
The group was comprised of members of Emet’s popular Fellowship program for beginners. Most have a limited religious background and virtually no Jewish education. Many Kew Gardens families participated in the Shabbaton, graciously inviting students into their homes and pulling out all the stops, making students feel comfortable in a new environment.
The Shabbaton was hosted by the leaders of Emet’s Stony Brook program, Rabbi Shlomo Agishtein, Rabbi of the campus Orthodox service, the Stony Brook Hebrew Congregation, and his wife Dr. Peryl Agishtein, who holds a PhD in Psychology and is head of the Assessment Department in a community clinic.
In an incredible display of commitment, six students kept the entire Shabbos for the very first time in their lives as a merit for the souls who perished in Pittsburgh one week prior. Peryl challenged students to voluntarily place their phones into a “Shabbox,” which could not be accessed for the entire 25+ hours, and many rose to the challenge!
On Friday evening, the group enjoyed a beautiful Carlebach-style Kabalas Shabbos performed masterfully by renowned chazan Rabbi Leib Roberts at K’hal Adas Yeshurun, aka “The Big Shul.” They were greeted to a warm welcome by shul members, and participated in singing and dancing. After the services, Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff addressed the congregation, welcoming the students (and other guests), and speaking passionately about the depth of emotion in the air on the first Friday night following the Pittsburgh tragedy r”l. He added how appropriate it was for the community to host guests during such a meaningful time.
Students split into two groups for the Friday night meal. One group went to the home of Rabbi Yaakov Grossman, a member of the hanhalah of Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah, and his wife Rasha, the secular studies principal of Yeshiva Ketana of Queens (Peryl’s parents), while another enjoyed a meal at the home of Emet’s Co-founder Rabbi Akiva Rutenberg and his wife Shonnie. After the meal, everyone gathered at the Grossmans for an uplifting oneg that lasted until the wee hours.
Rabbi Grossman discussed the deeper meaning of Kiddush, explaining that Hashem involves people in the sanctifying of Shabbos, showing that we are partners with Hashem in bringing spirituality to this world. Rabbi Rutenberg spoke, as well, followed by a captivating Q&A session with Rabbi Agishtein that lasted until 2 a.m. Students asked about a wide range of topics, including abortion, adoption, faith in Hashem, and other areas. The session was a huge hit, and Rabbi Agishtein received numerous requests to hold Q&As regularly on campus.
On Shabbos afternoon, students returned to the Grossman home for chavrusa learning. They divided into small groups led by Emet staff members, students from Yeshiva Shaar HaTorah, and members of the community. Josh Margulies, who works for Emet, joined the afternoon learning, and says he found it extremely powerful. “My chavrusa and I discussed a Jew’s purpose in the world. He shared which aspects of Judaism he finds most meaningful, and the beautiful midos he sees exhibited by many Jews of all backgrounds.”
Josh added that teachers and students alike seemed to gain from the experience. “The Grossman house was filled with sincere and meaningful discussions,” he explained. “The Shaar HaTorah boys were very moved by the intense level of thought and philosophical discussion on topics they don’t often discuss.”
Shalosh Seudos was hosted by Rabbi Doron Sillman and his wife Faygie. Each student spoke about a meaningful part of Shabbos that they experienced. Many mentioned the amazing reception they got from their hosts, as well as the feeling of warmth they felt from the community. In addition, students found the Friday night davening to be exceptionally uplifting and inspiring. The Shabbos experience crescendoed with a dramatic and emotional musical Havdalah by Shabsi Fixler, with Yerachmiel Frank playing keyboard professionally.
One student, Micaela, said she was amazed by the people she met, as well as the bond that seems to connect Jews of all backgrounds. “I love the sense of Jewish community there is,” she said. “I feel like in some way everybody has a connection to each other through Judaism.” She added, “I also loved the hospitality of the warm home we stayed at.” Two sisters, Paula and Dana, asserted to their Kew Gardens hosts, “We’re going to be your neighbors someday.”
Rabbi Agishtein says that for students who are not yet ready to be shomer Shabbos, one of the biggest takeaways is getting to witness a religious community first-hand. “In Stony Brook, a typical Shabbos consists of a Friday night meal with friends, and hanging out in Chabad afterward,” he says. “Here, they got to see a community where you feel Shabbos in the streets, and you see families whose homes are filled with it.”
He added that participating in a Shabbaton like this and being hosted by families shows students the beauty of Shabbos. “This helps them see that being shomer Shabbos is an attractive livable lifestyle, not a collection of do’s and don’ts.”
That same Shabbos, Emet hosted an even larger Shabbaton in Passaic and a smaller one in Far Rockaway for other campus programs. Shabbatons continue on an ongoing basis, with two more scheduled for this coming Shabbos, as well.
Emet’s Stony Brook program, which is flourishing this semester, is one of five dynamic Emet Fellowships. The organization runs 11 exciting and educational programs on a weekly basis, spanning campuses from Baruch College, to St. John’s University and Queens College, to others. Students who complete their first year of Fellowship attend a powerful week-long trip to Poland and Prague.