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Student perspectives

A celebration of Israel, Her Heroes, and Our Faith During IDF Shabbat at UT Chabad

    I had the pleasure of sponsoring Shabbat dinner at UT Chabad this past Friday evening for over 110 students and graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. During this Shabbat, we paused to recognize and honor former IDF soldiers Elan Kahalnik, Gil Sheleg, Michael Herschmann, and Elan & Meital Liebman, and thank them for their courage and unrelenting determination in protection of Eretz Yisrael.

    We were also honored to have Rabbi Zev’s grandmother, “Bubbie Leah”, join us for Shabbat. Leah Johnson and her late husband were Bielski Partisans (their story famously told in 2008’s feature film Defiance) and fought to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.  

    There was special significance in holding a Shabbat dinner with these two generations of Jewish heroes as both the soldiers and Leah Johnson encapsulate the meaning of Am Yisrael Chai. From the ashes of the Holocaust to the establishment of the State of Israel, the heroes who joined us for Shabbat embody the multi-generational strength of our people as they all have demonstrated their courage and resolve to stand up against tyranny and terror in protection of Kol Yisrael. 

    How wonderful it was for me to join the next generation of Jewish community leaders at UT Chabad for Shabbat dinner, to daven our ancient prayers, and to laugh and celebrate with everyone in attendance! The wonderful evening was made possible thanks to the tireless work Rabbi Zev and Ariela who undertake an incredible amount to ensure UT Chabad is a home away from home for every Jewish student. Their work is unparalled and unmatched on campus and is truly a labor of love.

    As I said on Friday evening, we find ourselves in dark days when it seems danger and despair are on the rise and Israel’s enemies emboldened as never before. How should we react? It is important for us to resist the temptation to become complacent with worry. Rather, we need to challenge ourselves and strive to provide sparks of light to illuminate the darkness by increasing the amount of Mitzvot we undertake… and especially the giving of Tzedakah.

    I see Chabad at UT and the work that Rabbi Zev and Ariela undertake as being a Ner Tamid, or guiding light, on the UT campus. I encourage all students at UT to not only thank the Johnsons for their tireless and unending work, but offer your assistance. Moreover, speak to your parents and encourage them to donate to Chabad so that their important work on your behalf can continue. 

I hope all of you will stay in touch. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I might be of assistance now or in the future as you continue your life journey. I can be reached via email at scott.k@fidf.org.

    I wish you and your family a Gmar Chatimah Tova. May all of us, and all of Israel, be inscribed in the Book of Life for happiness, health and most of all, peace.

-Scott Kammerman

Executive Director, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (Texas Chapter)

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Shabbat Speech by Freshman and IDF soldier Michael Herschmann

     For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Michael Herschmann, and I’m a freshman here at UT. Rabbi Zev asked me to speak a little bit about my experience in Israel as well as share with everyone what it was like for me to come from NY and go straight into the Israeli army.

     Quite honestly there were a few things that pushed me to join the IDF. I had been to Israel over 30 times and already felt a great connection to the land and the people; but mainly, a few of my friends a year older than me had gone for the year and told me, “Michael, this is by far the craziest, hardest, and most rewarding year you can ever have. If you decide you want to push through it then do it now before college while you have the chance.” With a little more looking into it, and some time, my mind was set on joining and with help from my father and friends in Israel, I was able to join at the age of 17, which technically isn’t even allowed.

    I joined the army in the August draft of 2011 and was sent to the unit Kfir, one of the five main combat units. I requested Kfir, because all my friends who had attended Aish Machal, a pre-army training program with me, had been sent to one of the platoons in Kfir. When I arrived on base, all the way in the north a few kilometers away from Jordan, they sent me to a platoon with no one I knew. At first I was furious because there was only one other person there that spoke English, but with time the other soldiers there became some of the best friends I have today. I remember so vividly my first night there. My hebrew was adequate enough to speak with them, although I was unable to portray anything that would even sound like myself.

    The way training works is that, for the first 3 and a half months your in basic training. During basic training you spend most of your time practicing shooting, sleeping in tents outside, and taking shifts guarding the base. This was all such a shock to me because, there I was right out of yeshiva day school, literally two months ago, and now I had my own m16 that I would shoot, sleep and shower with. Right after basic training we began advanced training and started gaining SOME basic human rights. We wouldn’t have to stand in rows of three, and they wouldn’t make us drop into push up position every time we spoke out of turn, although the work got much more intense. For the next three months we were trained to fight in situations we would encounter should there be a war. We learned things as simple as Krav Maga (hand to hand combat), to techniques on how to take over mountains using live ammunition, as well as learning how to fight in cities and buildings. Now, when you would do all these drills with your officers and fellow soldiers, it would never be near the base. We would take a few hour bus ride, usually to some isolated area, and stay there for a week at a time. When we finally arrived we would spend hours unloading the trucks carrying all our equipment and set up camp. I was unfortunate enough to have all my outdoor training done in the winter, which happened to be the worst one in years. After camp was set up, we would spend the week learning the terrain, and performing dry and wet drills in groups of 10, 30, and eventually 90 people. This was by far the most physically draining part of my army experience seeing as we would be running around with our heavy gear all day, shouting commands and shooting at targets.

    After three months of training in mountains and cities, we were moved to a base in Gush Etzion, which is in the west bank. This is when things started to get real; we would have interactions with Arabs daily. While in Gush Etzion, we would do a multitude of things, ranging from guarding the base, to guarding in Arab villages, jeep patrols, night missions, and arrests. Fridays would be especially hectic because every week at 12pm, after the Arabs would finish praying, they would come throw stones and molotov cocktails at us and our jeep patrol. I don’t want to speak for too long so I won’t go into great detail, but it was really eye opening for me to see all the craziness that was going on literally 30 minutes away from Jerusalem, where everyone goes with their families on vacation, and the fact that not many people realize that this is going on right next to them.

    Towards the end of my service in Israel I actually started getting a little bit nervous because I wasn’t sure if I would get released in time for UT, although in the end I got out 4 days before classes started so luckily everything worked out. For those of you who haven’t been to Israel, or have but haven’t seen everything they would like to see there, I really recommend going on an organized trip. Daley Epstein here is gathering kids to go on Birthright, which I hear from everyone is actually the best trip you can take to Israel. You don’t need the army experience to develop a connection to the land, my friends here Jerry and Elan went to Orayta, a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and they too gained a meaningful connection to Israel. If anyone has questions or wants to know a bit more in detail what I did, you can feel free to ask me. I appreciate everyone taking the time to listen to me, and have a good Shabbos


 

Discovering Jewish Potential in the New Year by Freshman Mia Fredricks

    For Rosh Hashanah this year, I was in a sort of predicament on whether or not I should go home. Most people were driving home with friends or family to attend services and spend time back at home but I didn't really want to. I had returned to Houston the previous weekend for the opening Texans game and thought it would be a waste to drive home again. So I told my mom I'd just go to services in Austin and she was fine with that. Some background info: my family is apart of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston. We consider ourselves conservative but in reality, we only go to services for high holidays and bar/bat mitzvahs... Soo, I consider us almost-reformed. Personally, I've never had a problem with this title since I was the kid that dropped out of Hebrew school right after my Bat Mitzvah and always begged for another bathroom break at services. However, having gone to the first Shabbat at Chabad with my best friend Jori, I decided I may want to change "how Jewish" I really was.

            I talked to my Momo (grandma) a few days before Rosh Hashanah and explained that I was going to go to services in Austin; she seemed fine with it- at least I was attending services. So I mapped out my Sunday/Monday with my friends. I wanted to try both the Hillel and Chabad services so I attended Hillel conservative services and Chabad dinner Sunday evening, then Chabad services and Lunch Monday during the day. To my surprise, I did not take a single bathroom break during either service and actually enjoyed myself. I'm not trying to insult Judaism in anyway; it is just the fact that I always feel somewhat awkward trying to mouth prayers I don't know. I think what made it different for me this year was the family atmosphere I felt when I was at Chabad. Even though Monday's services lasted longer than I expected, I found myself interested in what we were truly praying for. Suggestion: if you don't know the Hebrew like me, just read the English. You're still praying and you feel more involved. I actually felt the urge to give myself a pat on the back after Monday's services because it was the first time for me to attend a 3 hour services without a break (*take that mom and dad*).           

            I've realized that even though I may not have spent a lot of time in services at home, I've finally found somewhere that feels like home, a place where I'm surrounded by friends and can enjoy embracing my Judaism. So thank you Texas Chabad for providing me with somewhere to call home. I cannot wait for the next four years of discovering my full Jewish potential.


 
 

Shabbat Speech by Senior and Executvie Board Memeber Shelby Robalin

    As we all know, this Sunday night is Erev Rosh Hashanah, and also the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance leading up to Yom Kippur. In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, Moses stands before the Israelites for the last time, urging them to understand and uphold the covenant they are about to enter with G-d.  He tells them, “it is not with you alone, but with those who are here and those who are not here that G-d makes this Covenant.” In Nitzavim, great emphasis is placed on togetherness, and the Jewish people as a nation, rather than as individuals, which may seem a little confusing seeing that it falls directly before the biggest soul-searching period of the Jewish year … The time surrounding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur truly is a time to search within ourselves and repent for our wrong doings, as we ask forgiveness from those we may have hurt, as well as forgiveness within ourselves. Why then does this torah portion focus so much on group mentality?

            While trying to find this answer, I thought of the people who really know me best, and started to think about the growing process we have been through together. I thought immediately of my family and friends, and realized the vast influence our actions have on each other. These actions, whether intentional or not, affect those around us. What is important to remember about our actions, whether positive or negative, is that they are more than just a reflection of ourselves. Our actions reflect upon all those who have shaped, and continue to shape us. We are a reflection of our families, our communities, and above all, of the Jewish people as a whole. The wrongdoings we commit may have ripple effects upon each, and by recognizing that, we may begin the path to repentance. 

            In Nitzavim, Moses says to the Israelites, “You are standing today, all of you, before G-d”—and for us, this mentality can be directed towards this upcoming New Year. The “plural” you that Moses spoke of is the same “we” that sit in this room, along with all other Jews awaiting and preparing for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays. Though we may all be on our own paths to repentance, we should rise together this Rosh Hashanah as a group, not as individuals, so that together we may strengthen our covenant as a people with G-d.


 

My Chabad Experience by Daniel Kasoff

    Before starting college, I had been going to Chabad in my hometown for quite sometime. My family and I would drive about an hour into downtown Houston to attend weekly classes led by Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff. These classes were focused around the main themes and lessons from that week’s Torah Portion. To be honest, at first, I was not a big fan, but luckily after a while, I began enjoying the classes and I came to see Rabbi Chaim as an engaging individual who was at some times down right hilarious.

            Since those first lessons, years ago, my family has made it a priority to visit the Chabad house on every one of our family vacations. One of my favorite times was when we went to the Chabad house in Albuquerque, New Mexico for Purim.

            My first event at Chabad at UT was Chillin' and Grillin', the annual bar-b-q at the beginning of the school year. During my first meeting with Rabbi Zev, he told me about the various programs that Chabad at UT has, including: Pizza and Parsha and weekly Shabbat services and dinner. I was thrilled by the idea of having a reliable Shabbat service so close to my new home --- add in the free home cooked gourmet kosher meal and I was hooked!

            After that first encounter with Rabbi Zev and his family, Chabad became a second home for me. Whether it was the middle of the day or late at night, Rabbi Zev was always there.  There have been many times when I have wanted to fulfill the Mitzvah of wrapping tefillin and Rabbi Zev has always made sure to be there in order to allow me the opportunity to fulfill this important Mitzvah.

            I am often asked, "What is so special about Chabad?"  And until just recently I would struggle with sharing the right answer. However, I saw that the Chabad house at Texas A&M  (Hook Em!) posted a picture on their Facebook that listed the top 10 reasons students enjoy Chabad. Number four stood out to me because it said, “the Rabbi and Rebbetzin are some of my closest friends.” I have grown so close with Rabbi Zev and his family throughout my time at the University of Texas and I can most definitely relate to this point. However out of all the many great reasons listed, number one is by far the best reason to explain my involvement in Chabad. There is no other way to describe it than by saying that Chabad feels like home. All the friends I have made and will continue to make as well as the memories I have that will last me a lifetime both make Chabad at UT my second home here at the University of Texas. It is truly one of the highlights of my college experience.

 

Sincerely,

Daniel Kasoff


 

Daniel Kasoff is a senior on the Chabad Executive Board.

Shabbat Speech by Recent UT Graduate: Jonathan Bakshian

I wanted to share a few words with you guys tonight about my experiences with Chabad over the years as well as give some words of encouragement for those of you who are new to chabad or have only been a handful of times--particularly the freshmen, you guys really are the future of this place.

I’ll never forget the first time I met Rabbi Zev, moving into towers he greeted me with a warm welcome.  When I asked how he knew I was Jewish, he jokingly pointed out the massive Jewish star hanging around my neck --I’ve been coming to chabad ever since.

I didn’t come around much at first, which I attribute to a misconception I had and I know many others share as well. I assumed Chabad was a religious organization designed for Orthodox Jews only. Here at UT that’s far from being the case. Whether you’re orthodox, conservative, reformed or not even an observant Jew everyone is always welcome here and I think it only takes one Chabad experience to realize that. As I look around me tonight, I feel just as welcome here today as an alumni as I did 4 years ago as a freshmen.

Although I have not been extremely religious throughout my life, keeping a strong tie to my Jewish identity remained a priority during college, and I am so thankful that Chabad allowed me to stay close to my Jewish roots

I think for Jewish students here at UT, Chabad is by far the most underutilized resource that they have available to them. Not only is there Shabbat every week, with a delicious home cooked meal, but there so many other great events throughout the entire year; Chill’n n Grilln, holiday services, and even study snacks during finals are just a few great events that I attended during my four years in Austin.

No one really see’s all the hard work that goes on behind the scene to make nights like tonight possible. Rabbi Zev and Ariela are truly two of the most incredible people you’ll ever meet. I can proudly say that my college experience at UT was greatly enhanced by having the opportunity to meet and work with these two people and their positive, self-less approach to daily life is something I truly admire.

I guess my overall message is for everyone to keep coming back and to bring your friends. For all the work that is put into running this place, the only thing expected in return is for the students to show up to the events. Rabbi Zev and Ariela work extremely hard to make nights like tonight possible! Hope to see all of you again soon, and Shabbat Shalom.

 

Welcome Back D'var by Freshman Jori Epstein

Parshat Ki Teitzei, 14 of Elul

Hi my name is Jori Epstein and I’m a freshman here at UT. First I want to welcome everyone to Chabad and thank Rabbi Zev and Ariella for having us as well as everyone who worked so hard to make this night a success.

In this week’s Torah portion of Ki Teitzei, G-d reminds the Jews of many prohibitions and rules to follow as they leave the desert and enter Israel. At first glance, the list seems a bit outdated—stone a disloyal son, do not retrieve dropped grains from your field and remember our battle against the nation of Amalek. Though each of these principles was applicable at the time, they seem much less connected to our lives now, as we dwell far away from the desert, farm infrequently, and don’t stone on our children.

Yet the principles as a whole and as individuals in fact offer great insight to our lives. We see the importance of discipline in both domestic and public settings, reminding us there will be consequences for our actions. And though we don’t gather grapes from our vineyards in Austin, the prohibition comes with reasoning—that the fallen grains shall go “to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Deuteronomy 24:21)

This specificity applies much more broadly than to the field. We learn from G-d, that as we make a livelihood and work to sustain ourselves, we need not forget the less fortunate. G-d will support us but we must emulate him in support of others.

The portion concludes telling us “זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם", to “Remember what Amalek did to [us] on [our] journey, after [we] left Egypt.” (25:17) As the battle of Amalek did not end triumphantly, it seems weird we should recall that struggle. We so often aim to “forgive and forget”—not dwell on our enemies and failures.

As we all return to Austin, some of us here new as freshmen, we must look to the future and our potential for progress. Yet the portion teaches us a valuable lesson—that we can’t forget our past. If we forget our past struggles, the work it took to get here and the trials we’ve overcome, we can’t reach maximum success in the future. Only by understanding our mistakes and working to improve them can we truly succeed.

I hope that with these lessons in mind, we can all continue our semesters off to great starts. Shabbat Shalom and Hook Em Horns!

 

Shabbat Speech by Recent UT Alumni: Jonathan Itzhakov

Three things are true about every UT Chabad event:

1.       You will meet interesting people

2.       The Rabbi will inspire you to see things in a new light,

3.       And you will regret arriving to the event on-time because nobody gets there on time (For the uninitiated, Jews operate on JST). ---JST is also known as Jewish standard time. Scientists have tried, failingly, for years to define the time conditions associated with JST. Some claim that it is 15 minutes late, others say 30 minutes, and a minority even says that as long as they make the event, they are on time.

On a more serious note, I believe that Chabad is a great organization because it has proven itself to be my home away from home, cultivated a great culture for Jewish students on campus, and it possesses great leadership helping me to cultivate my own skills.

Chabad has repeatedly proven to me (and hopefully others as well) that it is my home away from home for many reasons. Whatever the circumstance, Chabad was there to provide me with advice, support, and someone with which to speak. As a college student, I remember multiple times that I felt either overwhelmed or over worked and I did not want to tell my mother, because I did not want  to worry her --you know Jewish mothers and all.  Instead I was able to turn to Rabbi Zev and he provided me with wise words that I still refer to today. Thank you, Rabbi Zev!

Chabad has a wonderful culture, atmosphere, and energy. I have yet to see another organization with as successful of a Jewish melting pot that Chabad possesses. Chabad attracts people from all backgrounds, be it Israeli, French, Spanish, or those Texans that just seem to come over in bunches. Texans aside, the beauty of Chabad is that despite all our differences, we still manage to understand each other and grow together. Thank you all! You guys are the driving force behind the wonderful culture. Please keep it up!

I performed due diligence for this next one. Admittedly, it wasn’t performed in the most professional way—I mean how professional is a Google search? Nevertheless, here are some of the leadership qualities that I believe Rabbi Zev possesses:

  1. Exemplary character. Rabbi “walks the talk”. 
  2. Enthusiasm. Rabbi is very enthusiastic about his work.
  3. Openness. Rabbi is able to listen to new ideas, even if they do not conform to the usual way of thinking. He suspends judgment while listening to others' ideas.

Rabbi Zev is a wonderful leader. We are very fortunate that he chose his alma mater to do his life’s work, but he could not do it without his wonderful wife. Thank you, Ariela! Without you, I do not know if Rabbi Zev would be as great. We really appreciate everything you do!

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