Jewish Students find comfort at the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center

Thursday, 23 May, 2019 - 10:35 am

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.”
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