Yiddishkeit Finds a Home at Harvard


by S. Olidort - CAMBRIDGE, MA

April 13, 2003

The Spangler Center at Harvard Business School, a central meeting point for the movers and shakers of the international economy, was host last Sunday to 250 students, professors and alumni. World business leaders converge here for geo-economic summits, but what drew the crowd to this prestigious address was a celebration of spiritual life at Harvard.

“A Day of Dedication and Celebration of Jewish Life at Harvard,” Sunday’s event marked the completion of a newly renovated Chabad student center on campus, five years since its founding by Rabbi Hirschy and Elkie Zarchi. Against the predictions of many, the couple has succeeded to generate a lot of enthusiasm for Jewish life at Harvard, and the idea of Judaism taking root and flourishing at the country’s oldest institution of higher learning, and one of the world’s most academically rigorous campuses, was lost on none.

“Harvard is not an easy place to penetrate,” said alumnus Jonathan Baron who addressed the guests. “All the more amazing, then. . . (and) impossible to describe, is the depth of influence that Hirschy and Elkie have had upon so many in such a short time.”

The new center now houses a large dining hall; a multipurpose room for prayer, learning, and lectures; a library; a student lounge; offices; and a courtyard for larger functions. The structure was described as “a magnificent building . . . beautiful and tasteful and elegant.” But, said Baron, what makes the center so special is that it is “an eternal edifice” resting on foundations and values that are “timeless and lasting and true.”

Founded in 1636, Harvard has an enrollment of more than 18,000 degree candidates. The university is home to a Jewish student body of 4,500 students and a large contingent of Jewish faculty members, many of who move on to leadership positions in business, law and medicine, among other disciplines.

“Harvard produces leaders in every field,” says Rabbi Zarchi, “and Chabad is here to provide students with a positive Jewish influence that will help shape the leadership of the future.” On a campus that has seen an alarming increase in anti-Semitic sentiment, the need for leaders to be well informed was a point underscored by Professor Alan Dershowitz, keynote speaker at the event.

“After 350 years of Harvard’s existence we’re finally getting wisdom, understanding, and knowledge . . .and let me tell you, we’ve never needed it more,” he said, alluding to Chabad, an acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The university institution is a place where people learn about each other, from each other, and to combat anti Semitism and anti-Zionism on campus, he said, “we must learn from Chabad, from the way you have so effectively communicated.”

Baron, a graduate student when Chabad arrived here in the fall of ’97, observed that “There are many at Harvard with searing intellects, but few can combine intellect with wisdom.” Before Chabad came, he recalled, Harvard was “body without soul.”

Emily Ludmir, a senior at Harvard College and president of Harvard Friends of Chabad, a Chabad-affiliated student leadership group, “felt right at home” on her first encounter with Chabad. The Zarchis, she says, “have kept up with the very pulse of university life,” through a rich variety of programs like weekly Shabbat dinners which typically draw between 60 and 100 students, study sessions with Hirschy and Elkie, and holiday events like the public Menorah lighting on the steps of Widener Library, or the Purim party at the Harvard Crimson. On a campus where differences of opinion are many, Chabad, she says, helps Jewish students focus on their common Jewish heritage, a unifying bond.

The cold, austere atmosphere so typical of Harvard creates a chasm between students and professors that alumna Penina Yerushalmi hardly thinks unintended. The professors are here strictly to educate, not to befriend, making the Zarchis’ roles as teachers, advisors, mentors and confidantes so valuable to students. Awe and admiration are common sentiments here she says, but feelings of love and real humility are rare at a university that counts seven American presidents and 40 Nobel Laureates among its alumni.

“Here anyone who yearns to be part of all or anything Jewish will be given the wherewithal-–the spiritual tools and sustenance needed to satisfy that quest and find a true home-away-from home at Chabad of Harvard,” said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky of Lubavitch World Headquarters, who addressed the event.

Senior Jared Kushner, who chaired the celebration’s committee, concurs. The Zarchis exude an extraordinary feeling of warmth and concern, he says, pointing to Elkie’s delivery of home-made chicken soup to his dorm room, while he was sick with the flu. “When people walk into your home, Elkie,” he said, “they enter as guests.” When they leave, "they have become your children.”

The ceremony honored two major Jewish philanthropist and Harvard alumni-—George Rohr and Jaime Gilinski, and their wives, whose generosity has made Chabad at Harvard a possibility. The two have formed a unique partnership with Chabad, and it is their support, said Elkie, that enables so many to benefit. “I wish this was here when I was a student,” said Gilinski, “but I’m so happy that it is here for the students of today and tomorrow.”

After the dedication, the crowd moved on to the Chabad center, where Raquel Gilinski and Pamela Rohr joined in a ribbon cutting, followed by a lavish reception attended by well over 300 people.

At the reception, professors danced arm in arm with undergrads and alumni in a moving display of Chabad’s emphasis on Jewish unity and the purest form of joy. “The Rebbe said that miracles are all around us and that we must open our eyes to see them,” said Rohr. “Chabad at Harvard is indeed a miracle,” inspiring all those it touches with its “warmth, caring, wisdom and friendship so that they in turn may go out to the world and create their own miracles.”

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