Student perspectives

Welcome Back Shabbat Student board Speech

image0 (72).jpegHi everyone. So happy to be back with you all this evening. I wanted to discuss a bit of the parsha this evening even though I know Rabbi Zev and Ariela will elaborate on it further. However; Parsha Ki Tavo is very fitting for this first shabbat together. A quote from it reads,

“Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.”

This parsha as well as this quote, embodies the joy of gratitude, the warmth of a home, the conquering of the past with a foreshadow of the excitement to those who we will welcome in the future. Chabad is not just a place but a home that holds all of the meaning within this parsha. It is the smell of the challah being baked that brings the warmth of a home as well as the friends you meet here who quickly become family. It holds a heavy past of students like you and me meeting our Jewish identities and learning the battles that come along with being Jewish in this world. It is the excitement of turning a stranger into someone you cannot live without. And overall it is a place of gratitude. I am so grateful and blessed to have found a home in chabad through the wisdom of Rabbi Zev, the kindness of Ariela, the laughter and love of their children and all those who embrace my neshama, my soul here. May we all be blessed to fill our lives with light, love and health and rejoice in gratitude because of it. I wish you all a wonderful year, thank you and shabbat shalom. 

Aepi Shabbat Dvar Torah

Jacob Fridakis.jpegBy: Jacob Fridakis

Good Shabbos. My name is Jacob Fridakis for those of you I have not met. First and foremost, thank you to the Johnson family for hosting us tonight. I think I speak for everyone here that you always welcome us with love and it means a lot. Rabbi Zev, you were especially supportive to me during my freshman year and I am so appreciative of that and it means a lot that you would ask me to give this week’s dvar torah.  This week’s parashah is “Emor,” meaning speak in Hebrew. In it it lists the annual Callings of Holiness or the major festivals of the Jewish calendar.  On the seventh day there shall be a sabbath or complete rest, a sacred occasion. In the first month, on the fourteenth day, there shall be a Passover offering to the Lord and on the fifteenth day of that month, the Lord’s feast of Unleavened bread. In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. And so on and so forth. 

At first, to me it almost sounded like dates were chosen at random however there seems to be a lot of let’s say precision to these days. There’s like an exactness to it. To me, this really underscores the value the tradition of celebrating the various important days in the Jewish calendar. It’s quite powerful knowing that myself, my ancestors and their ancestors all celebrated Sukkot on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Emor’s intent is to define the rules of holy people, places, and time. Multiple times, the portion emphasizes that the holy time, or moadim is reserved for holy acts, and not mundane activities. These days are reserved for restful reflection and concentration. Yet, every week we get one of these days, Shabbat. I think now, more than ever given the pandemic and state of the world, taking time for rest is so so important. While we may not be threatened with death if we do not rest as the Emor does, taking time for yourself is crucial for our individual success.

Again, I would like to thank the Johnson’s for hosting us tonight. Good Shabbos and thank you for listening. 

Rabbi Zev’s Funeral Speech of his Bubby

 The following is the speech I gave at my bubby’s funeral. 

1. It’s a rough draft and was presented slightly differently. 

2. This barely scratches the surface of what an amazing lady she was. 


Last Wednesday, After thanksgiving, I was playing catch up with emails. I receive from a daily email, which frankly I often skip, but Bobe Leah wasn’t doing well that day and I needed an extra dose of inspiration. I opened up the email and went to the thought of the day.

It read: 

May the Almighty comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem

— Text of "Nichum Aveilim"--words of consolation said to mourners

I turned to my wife and said what kind of random inspirational quote of the day is this?!  How could this put this in an email? Well as well all know, later that evening….

I never thought the first funeral I would be officiating at, would be my Bobes. How sad. But also, What a zechus and merit to do this for her. 

I hope we never me together again under these circumstances but only rather at simchas. 

I accepted this role cause she’s my bubby. She certainly meant something different to everyone of us in this room.  But I’m going to share a little what she meant to me. 

For klal Yisroel she was the fighter who stood up to the nazis, part of the Bielski bridge. She even had a little bit of Dr. Ruth in her if you know what I mean. 

To me, her story as well, is one of a sweet loving lady who had a twinkle in her eye and and smothering love for her family and friends. She would kiss you so much till you sometimes couldn’t breathe. And then go back for more!

There are 3 general ideas and lessons I want to try focus on when I think of my bubby. 

3 biggest life lessons

1st point: relationships.

My wife and I, after Bobe Leahs passing, were Speaking on the couch and I quipped out loud - I wonder where Bobe Leah is right now? We both immediately said, with her husband, and then I broke down crying. 

She probably spoke about her husband every day of her life. Even when my wife and I made a trip to see her a month ago the person that she kept asking for the most was her dear husband. The bonds of eternal life and eternal love was so evident and clear. I learned so much from her about what it means to respect your spouse and the truly deep and special bond between a husband and wife, to be close to family - to be a mench, and  to go out of your way and just do the right thing for the people you love  - and trust me I’m still learning from her. 

2nd Point: fighter

She always fought for what she believed in -both at a young age and till the very last moment. People have told me privately how she was there for them during difficult times in their lives, and for me she was there every step of my personal journey - she was thrilled with me in becoming a chabad rabbi and Shliach and having a family and encouraged me to fight for my values and for what I believe in and to fight to be successful both materially and spiritually.

3.  She valued every single day of life.

With that in mind, I would like to tangent slightly to what I felt Gd was supporting me and even crying with me.

The day of Bobe Leahs passings, I called Aunty Sara, who I have to say, was so incredible  in being there for Bobe Leah non stop in her last days. We went over the last prayers one should say, the highlight being that of the Shema. We were both crying in our own ways and we ended the call.

After Bobe Leah passed, my wife and I were sitting on the couch reminiscing about Bobe Leah -and I  was looking for some inspiration and for a coping mechanism and I opened the Hayom Yom,  a Chassidic book of aphorisms and wisdom.

Lo and behold, the lesson of the day read as follows:

My revered father, [the Rebbe Rashab,] once said: The recitation of the Shema before retiring at night is a miniature version of the confession a person makes before his soul departs from his body. At that time, however, one leaves the fair forever; that puts an end to the transactions that can be undertaken “today, [which is the time] to perform them.” When we recite the Shema before retiring every night, we are still in the midst of the fair — we can still achieve something.

Bobe Leah had a real Yiddishe shema.

And please permit me one last almost unbelievable thing that happened on Wednesday.

Reflecting on the daily torah portion - that week we are introduced to LEAH - and the day of her passing it explains the 3 children she had then.

Gd is with her, she is with Gd. She loved. loved Yiddishkeit. She later on learned to love chassidishkeit and found so much nachas from all of us when we celebrated being proud jews. She reflected it in her speeches around the US.. She loved Shabbos, yom tov, matzah ball soup, kichel, shabbos candles. Yet right now she can’t light Shabbos candles, so lets resolved to light them for her or inspires someone else to at the right time. Let’s do any mitzvah we can that we feel connected to, on her behalf to bring some level of light out of this  darkness.

I hope that each of us can try in our own way to to live in her legacy, to learn from the lessons I mentioned above. 

May all these good deeds we resolve to do be a tremendous elevation of her soul as well as a comfort for my father and the entire family and extended family and friends.

Nevertheless, I will continue to remember her with her loving smile, and her many yidishe phrases like

A grepsele arois in a gezuntele arein 

Kinder un gelt, is a Shaina velt - I say that often. 

Bobe Leah was my best friend, and she will alway be, my hero, our hero, the worlds hero.

Bobe Leah I hope today, and every day, I will give you what you always wanted and often asked - both yiddishe and chassidishe nachas.

I love you.


Circled is Rabbi Zev’s grandfather Velvel Zev Johnson, fighter and hero of the Bielski Brigade. (JPEF)

Scholar Mrs. Leah Bedzowki-Johnson - Large.jpg 

Watch one of Bobe Leahs speeches here:


With her son standing beside here, Leah Bedzowki Johnson regales an audience of Jewish students at the University of Texas about surviving the Holocaust as part of the famed Bielski Brigade of partisan resistance fighters.


Aron Bell, the last surviving Bielski brother, with fellow partisan Leah Johnson and her grandson Rabbi Zev Johnson at a Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation tribute dinner in New York City. (photo credit: Renee Ghert-Zand). -read her biography and see more videos here.  

Watch on TorahCafé.com!

My Sukkot Speech

 By: David Cohen

IMG_1930.jpgSukkot is a time of change of renewal. Once a year, on this special holiday, we take a break from the ordinary and exit our homes to dwell in the Sukkah. For many, that’s an uncomfortable transition. The heat, the rain, the bugs – there are a million reasons not to enjoy it here. But Sukkot isn’t supposed to be a time of discomfort. Rather the opposite. We’re supposed to enjoy dwelling in this hut. In fact, one of the commandments of the holiday of Sukkot is to be joyful. So, what can we learn from this?


We’re fortunate to have the high holidays line up with the beginning of each new school year. Many of us are experiencing radical change in our lives right now. Between the things we knew we'd put up with (classes, making new friends) and the things that we hadn’t accounted for (like setting aside a 2.5 hour block for laundry, and pledgeship), we've all had our lives turned upside down since being in Austin. 


For those of us who aren't freshmen or transfers, adjustments were still made. Maybe it's your first year having to live off-campus. Maybe you're living in a fraternity or sorority house, having to put up with late nights or other shenanigans. Maybe this is your first year off a meal plan.


Sukkot is a yearly reminder that while all of these changes may stress you out and push you outside of your comfort zone, we’re supposed to appreciate it all. And we should enjoy life. Otherwise what are we doing?


On Yom Kippur, we look inside ourselves and search for problems that need to be resolved. On Sukkot, we do the exact opposite. We enter the outdoors and look externally, and instead of focusing on the negative, we appreciate the beauty and unpredictability of the great outdoors, and life itself. 


Sukkot is about optimism. It’s about finding light in the darkest places. It’s about being thankful for what we have and who we’re with. 


So, as we abandon our homes and enter the Sukkah, you should temporarily abandon your stress and concerns, and focus on what matters in life. In the Sukkah, focus on the big picture, not the nitty gritty of the everyday. In the Sukkah, rediscover your love for life. 

Pink Shabbat

IMG_8350.jpgBy: Sophia Cantor

When my best friend’s mom died from breast cancer during our junior year of high school, it was the first time someone close to me had passed.
I met my best friend Skyler in sixth grade. Thankfully, our younger sisters, who happen to be the same age, became best friends soon after. The first time I met Skyler’s mom, Beth Thomas Stark, was when she took Skyler and I to Six Flags. I went home and immediately told my parents that she was way cooler than them. My dad was fine with this considering he would never drive 45 min to watch me spin in circles.
Though Beth was born in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas, she was well travelled and loved New Zealand; where she raised her daughters Skyler and Kaci. Beth was the valedictorian of her class and went on to be a first generation college graduate. She quickly became a successful scientist, but retired early to fight cancer.
For the 6 years I knew Beth, she was always fighting her breast cancer in a new way. She fought and she did everything for the sake of her daughters. She was able to gain highly specialized cancer treatment due to her expansive and specialized scientific knowledge. Her respect within the science community and high character allowed her prolonged participation in a cancer study even when she was no longer eligible.
Her understanding of life spanned well beyond science. Though she was never religious, she was spiritual and had a deep appreciation for the world around her. She grew plants around the house and had a small garden on the back porch. The front door was painted blue and the door knocker was in the shape of a pineapple; a universal sign of welcome and warmth. Even those who were not close to her, felt enhanced by her presence.
When her life was nearing the end, my friends and I created a scrapbook. We each choose a word to describe her for our own personal page. The word I chose was hero. Beth is my hero because despite the many hardships in her life, she lived in a positive and radiating manner that allowed everyone around her to feel impacted by her wisdom and happiness.
I aspire to live as fully and as gracefully as Beth. I hope to live up to her expectations of respect for others and plan to follow in her footsteps in the field of science to aid in the mitigation of cancer’s impact across the globe.

Jewish Students find comfort at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center

IMG_4961.jpegOn the corner of 21st and Nueces streets stands a two-story yellow house Jewish students recognize as The Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center, a place of higher worship where they can connect with their Jewish identity. The center provided the same comfort for University of Texas at Austin alum Rabbi Zev Johnson in the late 1990s.
“Chabad was the only Jewish organization open in the summer,” Johnson said. “I got involved slowly and surely to the extent that I said ‘Let me go to rabbinical school and become a rabbi and come back and kind of revolutionize what’s happening on campus.’”
Johnson has been serving as the co-director of the Chabad Center since 2007 along with his wife, Ariela, and their eight children. They hope the family-focused center will create a home for the 6 percent of UT students who identify as Jewish. Johnson connects with students on campus by fostering partnerships with Greek life and teaching a Jewish studies academic program.
“It’s not just the rabbis, it’s the wives and the kids (that) are very involved,” said Johnson, also known as Rabbi Zev. “We are not just a center, rather a home where we are engaging to all.”
Because Johnson also attended UT, he actively tries to integrate the center into different student communities.
To do so, Johnson fostered relationships with Greek houses around campus. He created events for Jewish students in Greek life, such as holding open forums about Judaism, hosting Shabbat dinners and inviting members to pizza-making events.
“I was in Greek life a little bit, so I do get that side of it, which I respect and love,” Johnson said. “We are very involved with the Jewish students in Greek life and there’s a lot of incredible partnerships.”
Senior finance student Jordan Steinberg found out about the center his freshman year when the center invited Zeta Beta Tau to a Shabbat dinner. Even though Steinberg actively practices Judaism, he used to only attend events at the center twice a year. 
“I grew up in a fairly strong Jewish community,” Steinberg said. “I’m from Dallas where I was a member at Temple Emanu-El. It is a very large and strong Jewish congregation.”
But his involvement peaked this semester after he decided to become a Sinai Scholar, a national program that allows him to study Jewish texts and network with other members of the Jewish community. The UT chapter is comprised of 25 students who meet for eight classes each semester at the center.
Steinberg credits the society for helping him grow in his faith and in his relationship with the rabbi.
“Through Sinai Scholars, I have the opportunity to discuss and challenge Zev about Jewish beliefs, customs, and ‘Jewish thought,’” Steinberg said. “Zev creates a learning environment that is open and challenging, and discussion is encouraged. Despite practicing Judaism differently and not always agreeing, I have gained a great deal of respect for Zev.”
Other Sinai Scholars, such as Aviv Navon, knew about the center long before they enrolled at UT. Navon first heard about Johnson from his siblings.
“While they were students, Zev would hold a private session with them one day a year on the day that my grandfather passed away,” Navon said. “As a freshman, when the (date) came, my two siblings and I went to Chabad and just talked with Zev.”
Navon said his first impression of Zev was someone who was not only a great rabbi but also a great person.
“He truly cared about everyone in the community and chose to go out of his way to help us with anything we needed,” Navon said.
This type of compassion is what Johnson said he strives to bring to the University’s Jewish community.
“We give people the tools to get in touch a little more deeper with (their) identity,” Johnson said, “to see what Judaism has to offer, to feel safe and comfortable knowing there is a broader-based community that is there for them as a family.”

Jordan Steinberg's thoughts on his Sinai Scholar class with Rabbi Zev

Jordan Steinberg Headshot cropped.jpg

I grew up in a reform household in Dallas. I did not attend a Jewish Day school, and religious school was only enforced in my house when the Cowboys did not have a 12:00pm or 3:00pm game. My family drinks scotch at our Passover Seder, and kosher to me is leaving the shrimp off the bacon cheese burger. This is all not to say Judaism is not important to me. I am extremely proud to be Jewish, but I had realized there were a few commandments I had given myself exceptions on.


All this considered, I would not have viewed myself a prime candidate for Sinai Scholars this spring. Zev did a great job creating an environment where it was ok to challenge and share, but also have a different viewpoint. That said, after the first class, I had noticed two things:


1. The class would be tired of hearing me speak

2. Zev’s thought process


Zev is able to bring a Judaism into every aspect of his life, and every decision he makes, is made with Jewish values and morals as has his compass. I developed immense admiration and respect for the way Zev was able to do this and follow the laws of Judaism so closely. This also induced almost a level of intimidation for some loves bacon wrapped shrimp. This caused me to juxtapose Zev’s practice of Judaism to my own throughout the class. While I did not necessarily think one way of thought was better than the other, I began to question where this positioned me as a Jew. As the class winded on, we explored various topics about Judaism, and this question continued to cross my mind. I would leave some classes finding that I did not completely agree with the “Jewish thought” that had been presented. I continually found myself feeling more or less Jewish depending on the week’s topic, and my point of view compared to the “Jewish point of view”.


By the last class, I began to be more comfortable with the idea that our practice of Judaism doesn’t make a better or worse Jew. Rather, Judaism is something we should be able celebrate and connect with regardless of practice. What is more important, is being intentional and committed to each of our own practices of Judaism, no matter the level. Zev shared a quote the last day of class that summarizes this idea well. Imagine a ladder with 613 rungs on it representing all 613 commandments. If there is a someone on rung 612, and another on rung 2, who is the better Jew? While our initial thought may be that the person who has completed 612 commandments is better than the other who only does 2, but what if the person on rung 2 was on rung 1 yesterday, and the person on rung 612, was on rung 613. It is equally as important to consider where we were yesterday in relation to where we will be tomorrow as where we are today.


Abby's Holocaust Reflections

WhatsApp Image 2019-05-06 at 9.48.30 AM.jpegAmidst the recent wave of Anti-Semitism, my sister and I felt it necessary to emphasize the importance of tolerance and acceptance. Below is an excerpt from a journal I kept last April while participating in March of the Living, demonstrating the lasting impact of hatred and prejudice even decades after it rears its ugly head. 

The March of the Living is “an annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and examines the roots of prejudice, intolerance, and hatred” (International March of the Living).

I will never re-experience emotions like I did today. Today, I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi-led deaths camps. On the drive up to Auschwitz, I passed a town with an extensive shopping mall just two miles away from the camp. That was not what I was expecting. I was expecting Auschwitz-Birkenau to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wilderness rather than existing in plain sight. When we arrived it was chilling. Auschwitz seemed almost like an amusement park, riddled with concession stands and gift shops outside its gates. I found that to be completely unsettling and inappropriate. When we walked through the gates, however, it was silent. All that was heard was the shuffling of gravel coupled with the quiet voice of the tour guide. The entrance to the camp was marked by a ADJECTIVE sign. “Work will set you free,” it read. Suddenly, I was greeted with a strong jab of emotion. The first of many throughout the day. I resented the meticulous Nazi design, misleading Jewish prisoners until the moment of their deaths. The sign served as a reminder.

From that moment on, I felt like I was going to puke. I followed my tour group to old prison quarters which were transformed into museums and displays. Quarters that were filled to the brink with pictures, facts, and objects of deceased Jews. The first time I broke down crying was when I walked into the living quarters. For the purpose of the museum, the living quarters were remodeled to hold all the valuable belongings that the Nazi’s confiscated from the Jews, believing it would one day make them rich. I had seen piles of shoes and clothes before in Yod Vashem, but this was nothing like I had ever seen before. There were enormous cases of shaven hair -- heaps with alarming magnitude. Some braids were even kept intact. To me, this was the closest connection I had ever felt with the deceased victims of the Holocaust -- a genuine part of them. I found the endless display of suitcases in the next room equally as horrifying. Each suitcase was labeled by the victim’s name and the date they boarded the trains to Auschwitz, expecting to receive their luggage when they arrived at the camp. As I walked slowly in line with the display, I saw countless names shared by people that I know. I read every name visible from my vantage point, in an effort to pay respect to the victims’ legacy. I wanted to ensure that someone remembered their names.

I saw the torture and experimentation chambers that were used before the final solution. As soon as I walked inside, I felt an unprecedented chill. Everyone in the room stood with chattering teeth, coated with goosebumps, despite the lack of any air conditioning and the blazing heat outside. We ventured to starvation chambers that crammed up to 40 people in a closet-sized space. The guide told us a story of a monk who sacrificed himself, taking the place of a man with a family inside the chamber. This reminded me that even in the darkest times, surrounded only by evil, compassion can survive.

I saw 3 by 3 standing cells in the basement of the building. Prisoners would stand for days in these spaces, unable to move. Irene, the Holocaust survivor that accompanied our group, was one of the prisoners who had been expelled to these cells. She decided to share her experiences with us. Irene explained that as a subject of Dr. Mengele, a Nazi doctor that sought to expand the Aryan race by whatever means necessary, she was injected with serum in her eyes to presumably turn them blue. Dr. Mengele’s intent was to generate distinctive characteristics of the Aryan race: blue eyes and blonde hair. After experimentation, Irene was subjected to stand in the cell with water up to her ankles, accompanied by four other girls who had been tortured in the same way. For five days of darkness, she couldn’t move, forced to survive off her own urine. Two of the girls died from the injection. One was blinded. Irene was unaffected. Just a snippet of her story reminded me how strong and resilient she is. I would like to say I could be that strong, but in reality, I don’t think that I could withstand that trauma.

After we left that room, most of the people in my tour group were numb, crying, and shaken. Adele, the other Holocaust survivor that mentored our group, gathered us together, calling us her grandchildren. I couldn’t fathom how a woman who had been through all of this misfortune firsthand had the capacity to console a large group of kids in the very place that reminded her own torture and the death of her family. I was in awe as she hugged us all and told us we were going to be okay.

One thing she said resonated with me. “You needed to see this.” She was right. All of the books, textbooks, movies, and lectures that have taught me about the Holocaust could not have prepared me for seeing the evidence firsthand. I was standing on the same ground where 1.1 million Jews were murdered and even more were tortured; on the ground where Nazi soldiers commanded orders. The facts were at my disposal, personified by the survivors standing by my side. I knew it happened, yet I could only think back to the countless movies, pictures, and stories as if they happened someplace else.

The only exception was the gas chamber. I do not think I will see anything in my life as scarring. I could not only feel the presence of the innocent murdered, but I could also see it. Scratches and claw marks were visible all across the walls. As I circled the room, something stood out to me. Am Yisrael Chai, written in Hebrew, was carved into the wall. “Israel lives on.” It was beautiful and disturbing all at once, serving as proof once again of the resilience hidden behind darkness.  

The second part of the room is where I broke down. The crematory --  dozens of ovens reminiscent of coal fired pizza ovens. After looking at them for a moment, dumbfounded, it hit me. They put people in there. Suddenly, I could see the abuse laid out in front of me; I could picture everything as it happened. I couldn’t breathe. I ran out bawling. As fell to the ground outside the gas chambers, I had one overwhelming thought: I had the option to leave.

Afterward, we went to Birkenau. It wasn’t commercialized like Auschwitz. It was a true death camp, stretching on for miles in every direction. Irene showed us the spot where Dr. Mengele tore apart her family. As a thirteen-year-old girl, she saw her family walk to their deaths as she stood helpless. I felt terrible that she had an exact memory of her family’s demise, one that she could play repeatedly in her head. I am angry that even after the Nazi’s and World War II are long gone, they can still torture the survivors with their memories.

I am glad I was able to embark on this experience with the survivors by my side. They helped me understand the gravity of the trauma they faced. Together and with other Jews from all parts of the world, we marched from the Auschwitz camp to Birkenau, ironically recreating the image of a WWII death march, to remind that world that there are survivors still stand. However, they never truly be free from this treachery.

Each year, survivors grow older and the actions of the Third Reich continue to take up more space in history books than people’s direct or primary memories of the event. It is an obvious fact that soon there will be no survivors to tell their stories. This means there will be no more primary sources from World War II prisoners or everyday reminders of what the Jewish people endured.

I chose to share my experience at Auschwitz because as I see reports of Anti-Semitic vandalism and Nazi sympathetic behavior being reported in the media, I cannot help but notice a possible connection to the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors. My fear is that once daily reminders of Jewish torture from World War II fade, society will come to tolerate Anti-Semitic behavior -- that does not grant society permission to condone Anti-Semitic behavior. When society does not respond to atrocious acts like vandalizing classrooms, subways, and cemeteries with swastikas, society is essentially granting people permission to act this. Survivors are dying, but we cannot forget them or their struggle. This is our responsibility.

*This piece is written by student, Abigail Schwartz, wishing to express herself in light of what happened in Poway and other incidents around the country. 



IMG_0204 (1).JPGShabbat Shalom. Thank you Rabbi Zev, Ariela, and your beautiful family for hosting us tonight.

This time of year is my favorite. Think about it: you just got to experience all four seasons in one week. How many places in the world really allow you to do that? Austin’s special like that, and I quickly realized how much I love it here 2.5 years ago, standing in this place, nervously giving my first of now three Dvar Torahs at Chabad.

I WAS nervous. But I like to describe myself at the time more as “uncomfortable.” I confidently agreed to provide a Dvar Torah, not knowing if my interpretations were correct or my speech would be received well. Fast forward one year and I am confident as ever. But that was dangerous for me, and here’s why. Admittedly at this time, I am living in another state of being uncomfortable. I am at a point in my life where certain decisions will likely impact where I live after I graduate, where I will be working, and most importantly…no longer being in college. If you learn anything from me tonight it’s this: living in a state of being uncomfortable is a blessing. It is when you learn the most about yourself, so embrace it, struggle with it, love it, and you WILL come out a stronger person and a step closer to the success you are seeking.

This week’s Torah portion is Pekudei—the last reading of the Book of Exodus, and it’s a beautiful story. The Mishkan has just been completed, a temporary Sanctuary in which the Presence of G-d could dwell during the Jews’ journeys through the desert. It ends with this visual: a cloud appears over the Mishkan, demonstrating the presence of G-d. Imagine now all the hardships the Jewish people were facing prior to the book of Exodus. Now picture Moses erecting the Sanctuary that’s engulfed by the Divine Presence that has been following the Jews all along. A beautiful and rejuvenating sight for the Jews.

Take that same energy appearing in this week’s Torah portion and apply it to your life tonight, in the week coming, in the year coming. The Jews had their eyes on the Promised Land. I am excited to see what is in store for all of you. Remember, live uncomfortably, acknowledge those that have helped you get to this point in your life, and don’t take this place for granted. There are people here tonight that have taught me invaluable lessons about life. For that, thank you. As we saw in this week’s Torah portion, there’s beauty in the struggle. Embrace it.

Shabbat Shalom.



Our Chabad House was picketed by fellow Jews this Shabbat


(Insensitively picketing on Shabbat, taking pictures of us (and videos of my kids) and blocking the entry and exit to Chabad House, picture from IfNot Now Facebook page)


When fellow Jews protested our synagogue on Shabbat


“What are those people doing outside?” my 4-year-old daughter asked me innocently. “They just asked me to leave Chabad and come sing with them Daddy.”


“Why are these people doing this to us in the middle of Shabbat morning services?” asked my 7-year-old daughter and my 10-year-old son as they gave me a flyer that was just handed to them through the gate.


Our UT Jewish community was gathered in synagogue, praying the Shabbat morning services.


A small group of students and young adults affiliated with “If Not Now” decided it was a good time to protest a guest speaker, who was going to speak at our center later in the day: A sweet and soft-spoken IDF soldier.


Shockingly, these protesters spoke to my young children and gave them flyers. They also videotaped and photographed us on Chabad property, something which is traditionally prohibited on Shabbat for religious reasons. All of this didn’t happen during any speech, but during Shabbat morning prayers.


I’m not against protests, even if I disagree with the cause. But on Shabbat -- during prayer services -- really? There’s a time and place for protests. It would have been nice to see them show some respect while claiming to advocate dialogue, because there is none without the other.


It reminded me of a fringe religious group, who were very active a few years ago, and would find the most inappropriate times to demonstrate. They didn’t make any friends, but cruelly garnered a lot of media attention.


This was a first for us at Chabad at UT. We’re a student center, a Chabad House, a place of Jewish engagement and joy for all Jewish students. Students come to us from all backgrounds and political spectrums. We are not a political organization. We are here for Jews and Judaism, period.


As it happens, for security measure we had an off-duty police officer at the Chabad house. She is an African-American police officer who we later found out is a detective and an ordained minister. She joined us and the discussion at the Shabbat meal later in the afternoon. She seemed to be perplexed by the protest in the morning.


Our guest, who served in the IDF, spoke without any agenda, sharing his life experiences about ethics in combat, challenges that the police officer seemed to be able to relate to. She told us about her husband who was in the U.S. military and faced similar challenges. She would be on the phone with him hearing bombs exploding overhead and he would tell her that everything was ok. It was a thoughtful and meaningful conversation, again with no politics but plenty of love and mutual respect and thoughts to ponder.


Our guest’s message was very simple:


  1. He shared a story about his grandfather, who faced death or a lifetime of being paralyzed by the infamous Nazi murderer and torturer in the Holocaust, Josef Mengele. He stood up to him and was miraculously saved. Courage!
  2. He visited Auschwitz together with his grandfather, with a beautiful message of hope, which seem to resonate with many students.
  3. He was one of the soldiers who found the bodies of the innocent Israeli boys who were murdered by Hamas terrorists. He shared the impact it had on him.
  4. He also led an interactive discussion about ethics in combat, with the core point being his personal struggle with saving both innocent life, both Jewish and Arab. It was something that  left you thinking. No agenda, no politics.


I also spoke, about how in this week’s Torah portion the half shekel was used for the census to count the Israelites in the wilderness, before they entered into the land of Israel more than 3,000 years ago. Teaching us the idea that we are all halves of a whole, and only when we unite can we have completion and peace.


The If Not Now group, lied about the what was discussed, and exploited our Jewish community for cheap photos on social media.


It’s absolutely unacceptable and unethical that these protesters targeted my children. I, as an adult, truly enjoy good conversation with mutual respect, but for protestors to engage young children is plain wrong.


The saddest part to me is that the protest was organized by fellow Jews, who should have understood the value and sensitivities around Shabbat observance, prayer and community. They showed up in the middle of morning Shacharit/Mussaf prayers, and very insensitively took pictures and videos of my kids on Shabbat. They failed to show the most basic respect and sensitivity.


It was in certain ways a very sad day. I am hopeful that one day it will be good for all of mankind, both Jew and non-Jew, as we work together to repair the world via our holy Torah. With mutual respect and dialogue, with our combined effort and actions of bringing world peace, redemption, we will reveal G-d in this world. We will make it a fitting dwelling place for him, as it is stated in the Midrash, with the coming of Moshiach, may this be speedily in our days!


P.S. A big thank you to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Dallas (JCRC) and Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas for making this beautiful and overall inspiring Shabbat happen and a big thank you to the wonderful students of UT, many of whom are proud Jews and are like family to us. AM YISRAEL CHAI!


To learn more about Israel:


Screen shots taken from IfNot Now Facebook page insensitively taking pictures (and videos of our kids) on Shabbat protesting a non political IDF speaker in our house while we are simply in the middle of morning prayers.






The National IfNot Now Facebook page praising their success.


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 Post by Rabbi Zev Johnson


eli.PNGThis week’s parashah is Behar-Bechukotai and, to sum it up, G-d is explaining to Moses the laws of the sabbatical year – every seventh year all work on the land should stop and the produce becomes free for the taking for man and beast, and every fiftieth year all work on the land stops, indentured servants are free… and more rules. G-d promises prosperity if you follow his rules, and exile if you don’t. But, although you will be exiled, he explains that he will not cast you away, destroy you, or break his covenant with you if you don’t follow his rules.

Similar to Shabbat, these rules remind us to take a breath and evaluate what we have. Those that have land and are working hard for 6 years can lose sight of how lucky they are. When the 7th year comes, it is almost like a breath of fresh air. You can look back to recognize and appreciate what you have. Paralleling Shabbat where you can look back on the last 6 days, this is a time where you can look back on the last 6 years and take a second, or a year, to think back. Whether it’s learning from your mistakes, remembering good times, or taking the time to spend with people you love, G-d reminds us to give ourselves this time to reflect. Although it’s cliché, graduation is also a time of reflection. As we are all sad about leaving this incredible city and the Chabad that we all love, it can also be a time of appreciation. In the last 4 years we’ve done a lot of work and this summer, hopefully, we’ll be able to stop for a few months before beginning our jobs. And if you’re starting right away after college, I hope you don’t get exiled. Although it might not be the exact sabbatical year, it can be considered a more modern sabbatical summer. But either way, it is a time of reflection of the last four years to recognize how lucky we have been to have attended such an amazing university, find such great friends, and create incredible memories.

 For more information on this Torah portion click here and here.



Nine years ago today I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah.  The day a middle schooler somehow becomes a woman in the Jewish world. We accept the obligations and are expected to fast, light candles, accept the commandments, and respect Jewish law and ethics. But after the celebration, the rest of life went on. I returned to middle school Monday morning, begged my parents to add more minutes on my razor phone, figured out who’s dress I could borrow for the Bar-Mitzvah the next weekend, and went bike riding with my friends. Well here I am 9 years later, and with graduation in two weeks I’m starting to associate with the term “woman” a little bit more. As a woman, I’m responsible for my actions, the way I treat my peers, and have grown the strength to speak up for myself. Thanks to UT, I’ve made friends from places I did not know existed and through this I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve learned that what makes us different is our best quality, it is not something that should isolate us. And finally, I’ve gained the confidence to speak for myself and to be proud of my opinions and my own voice. The Hebrew word Emor means speak. In this week’s Torah portion Emor, we learn about the rules and high standards of the Kohanim.

Kohanim are prohibited from coming in contact with a human corpse, marrying divorced women, sacrificing child and mother animals on the same day, and many other things. Emor ends with the punishments for all of the rules. They are all encompassed by an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Don’t do to someone what you would not want done to you. 

Yesterday was Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day between Passover and Shavuot. This is the one day of the Omer that Jewish law permits weddings, bonfires, and getting haircuts, a day of light in a period of mourning. The Omer is a time of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students who were killed for not treating each other respectfully. The students spoke poorly about each other and were competing to be the best, most respected student in the class, and this is why they all died.  This time of mourning is a reminder to treat each other kindly and how we would like to be treated. As we remember these students this month, we take time to learn about our peers and learn from them. Rabbi Akiva continued to live by the saying “All that God does, He does for the good”. Throughout the tragedy that has struck the Jewish population, we continue to grow, come together, learn, and have faith in God. This perseverance is what I love so much about being Jewish.

We can learn and grow from these 24,000 students who lost their lives, and use it as a reminder for our every day actions. Rabbi Zev and Ariella, thank you for welcoming us into your home for such a lovely dinner not only tonight, but every Shabbat. I had not been to Chabad since freshman year, joined Sinai Scholars this semester, and I am leading Birthright with Zev. You welcomed me into your home with open arms, regardless of where I had been in the past. You have faith in every student you meet, and I admire your willingness to teach us all like Rabbi Akiva did with his students. I wish I had taken advantage of the matzah ball soup, endless challah, and amazing hospitality earlier, but I’m so happy I discovered it now and brought some new friends with me. I have loved getting to know you both and your children and can’t wait to lead Birthright with you Rabbi Zev. I am so grateful that this trip has given me so much more than a trip to Israel, but new friends, experiences, and hopefully a great tan. I am so excited to grow as a leader and show my friends what I love so much about Israel and being Jewish. Good luck everybody on finals and Shabbat Shalom!

 To learn more about this past weeks Torah portion click here.

Acharei Kedoshim


This week’s Torah portion opens with a detailed description of how one might enter, and make an offering at “the holy,” (tabernacle, altar) and enumerates many steps to ensure ritual purity and procedures for sacrifice. After we are told exactly how to sacrifice an ox or goat, God starts talking to Moses saying, “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the Lord” after which comes a laundry list of things that need to be done so that we may be in accordance with God’s plan.

As things age and time goes on, parts of this list have become obsolete or redundant, including not sleeping with your brother’s wife, or letting your wives who are also sisters, see each other naked. Which is okay. In today’s society those rules aren’t much of an issue anyway. But there are parts of this list that still ring true, especially when interpreted in a more metaphorical sense--you should not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife--is a pretty good directive to not sleep with your friends’ significant others.

But to me, the most striking directives that we encounter in the Torah this week are those that ask us really hard things and can even be interpreted in a nearly literal sense:

You shall commit no injustice in judgement

You shall not stand by the shedding of your fellow’s blood

You shall not hate your brother in your heart

You shall love your neighbor as yourself

What beautiful commandments. I wish I woke up every day to someone reminding me to withhold judgement and to love my neighbor as myself. Because sometimes it’s really difficult to remember.

Some mornings when I’m walking to class and haven’t had my coffee yet, and someone is taking up the whole sidewalk, on their phone, moving at a glacial pace, I want to pick them up and move them out of the way. What really just blows my mind is when I’m at the gym and someone sits down on a machine I was in the middle of using and all I can do is stand there thinking, “you’ve just ruined my whole day…”

And these people, that most of the time we don’t even know, that we feel are agents of evil, there to completely ruin our day, have no idea (or they just don’t care.)

Love your neighbor.

What if we were so perfect, such elevated beings that when someone cut you in line or screwed up your Starbucks order, you smiled and wished them the best? How cool would it be if you could move through life, unaffected by the unintentional inconveniences others caused you?

God knows what’s up. He knows Becky took your cold brew and now you’re stuck with her venti caramel mocha. And I don’t think he’s upset that you’re upset. Because when he told us to love our neighbors, like many other rules of his, I think he made it the ultimate goal. And as we work toward that goal, we fill the earth with a relaxed compassion for others that makes their inadvertent transgressions so much more bearable, and in doing so we become closer to God. As often as we can remember his words “love your neighbor,” we can do our best to actually love our neighbor. Our slow sidewalk friend. Our gym partner with terrible timing on which machine to pick. We can tap our foot less and we can love all of these people. And maybe, hopefully, they can love us too.

My theory is, that if we practice, this abundant, free flowing, love that alleviates our burdens, makes daily injustices a little bit less tedious, and connects us to those around us, we can all make this planet a little bit less aggravating, and more comfortable for everyone on it.

So, as we look at this last week of class, dead in the eye, let’s remember everyone is going through something, and if we can do nothing else for them, let’s at least show our neighbor some love. Shabbat shalom.

To learn more about this past weeks Torah Portions you can click  here and here

Nadav and Avihu Strange Fire


student.jpgIn this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we are introduced to Kashrut laws, or what defines a Kosher animal. Split hooves, chewing cud, fins and scales, the whole nine yards. And there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this subject matter, none of which I will discuss today.

Instead, I will focus on an episode with Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. Nadav and Avihu were both priests in the Tabernacle, a makeshift travelling temple in the desert. They are remembered in the Torah for offering an improper sacrifice to G-d and their actions have made them scrutinized by scholars for decades. Wrongfully so, I think.

וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י ה' אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם: and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them.

וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י ה' וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהֹוָֽה: And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

Nadav and Avihu were responsible for performing basic religious functions, including offering traditional sacrifices. However, in this instance, they brought forth a “strange fire” and were punished accordingly.

Rather than to write off these two characters as “drunk fools,” as they’re commonly interpreted to be, I’m here to defend them. They did not offer this “strange fire” out of malice; they offered it out of service.

Throughout college, we make irrational decisions to garner approval from others. We partake in toxic gossip about our friends to show we’re “in the know”, we agonize over Instagram captions to generate satisfaction from distant friends and we participate in destructive habits to “fit in” with the cool crowd. All the while, we justify our “strange” actions by their intended results: approval from our peers.

Commentaries are quick to assert a few possible scenarios for why Nadav and Avihu were punished for offering a “strange fire” to G-d: they were drunk, they improperly prepared the sacrifice, they lacked authorization and they entered forbidden areas. These potential scenarios seek to rationalize the punishment Nadav and Avihu endured. But truth be told, none of us can know what truly warranted this punishment. This punishment was delivered from G-d, by G-d because of a misstep to G-d. There are two types of crimes: those between one person and another and those between a person and G-d. Punishments for crimes of the former include penalties, fines and jail time. Punishments of the latter include, well, death by Divine fire. Just as we can’t understand the punishment, we can’t understand the reasoning either.

Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered this sacrifice to seek approval from G-d. After all, their priest status committed them to lifelong service to G-d. Perhaps, this sacrifice was an attempt to show G-d their commitment to the Tabernacle, the service and the Jewish people. Perhaps they acted with pure intentions, but they just executed it very poorly. And since they did it on such a grand stage, the consequences were great. But we don’t have as much at stake today.

People are often judged by their actions, not their intentions. Of course, people should be held accountable for their actions, but to judge someone’s intentions and character solely by the result of their actions is naïve. People are multifaceted, dynamic creatures who make mistakes. In our everyday lives, our peers make mistakes and we are quick to judge them for them.

I’d like to offer an alternative method. Next time your friend, family, roommate, classmate and even professor make a mistake, take a step back, consider the intentions, and go from there. That will lead to a greater level of understanding between you and your peers and more productive decision-making moving forward.Life is full of mistakes, and we are bound to make them. So go out, make mistakes, learn from them, but don’t forget to allow others to learn from them too. Shabbat Shalom.

To learn more about Nadav and Avihu click here. 

Pink Shabbat Speech

Kelsey FeinbergPlease look around the room and see the people around you. Every single person here has probably been affected by cancer in one way or another. I am proud to be a part of Pink Shabbat, to take this time tonight to recognize the many lives effected by this disease, especially ones as prominent as the Breast Cancer. For those who do not know, I was diagnosed with cancer in high school. I underwent several chemotherapy treatments, procedures, and overall endured what one would when living a life with cancer. There are many things you lose from this process. I lost my physical strength, I lost my hair and eyelashes, I lost the opportunities to continue to live my life I had been living, and the overall feeling of health. However, I did not just lose, but I also gained. I gained more than I could ever have imagined. I gained wisdom about my family, my friends, even strangers, and myself. My family and friends have provided a support system stronger than anything I have ever seen. I have also seen that I have a new profound connection new people I meet every day. As time has gone on, not only have I regained a lot of what I lost, but I also continue to receive more. Even with a the new community I am in now, I have been overwhelmed with the love from the people in my life. Thank you to everyone here for supporting Pink Shabbat, supporting those battling breast cancer, and supporting me. 

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