University of Pittsburgh student Max West had only been to a Shabbat service once in the last 10 years prior to meeting leaders from Chabad House on Campus at a college activities fair when he was a freshman almost three years ago.
He didn’t attend a Shabbat service again until he was a junior — and he and his friend, Sam Hanks, celebrated their b’nai mitzvah, officiated by Chabad House Rabbi Shmuli Rothstein.
The unlikely journey traveled by the pair began after the activities fair West attended, where he learned about the Dr. Stanley Marks Jewish-U Fellowship program at the university and decided to sign up for the nine-week course.
West, who had no formal Jewish education after his family moved from New Jersey to Switzerland when he was 9 and had not had a bar mitzvah, nonetheless decided to enroll in the Chabad Fellowship program, motivated, in part by a $350 stipend, he said.
The economics major was soon moved by more than fiscal interests, though.
“That’s where I met Shmuli and Chasi [Rothstein] and then, basically fell in love with Chabad,” said West, now 21. “I really enjoyed the class. It got me excited to learn more about Judaism and get more involved with the Jewish community at Pitt.”
Unlike West, Hanks, 20, celebrated his bar mitzvah when he was 13, but said it was not meaningful. His training was sparse, and he didn’t learn Hebrew — instead he memorized a piece of his Torah portion and gave a brief speech about the parsha.
Hanks, an English literature major, said his mother felt it important that both he and his sister had the opportunity to connect with their Jewish heritage, if they desired.
“She wanted us to be able to be Jewish,” Hanks said. “She grew up in a household where, when her parents were 18, they stopped speaking Yiddish and moved to California. She grew up Jew-ish, like they had bagels on Saturdays and Sundays but just didn’t talk about it. They would go to High Holidays but leave early. She wanted to make sure we had an opportunity to follow it if we wanted.”
Both Hanks and his sister delved deeper into their Jewish roots when they went to college, he said.
He credited West, who wanted to be called to the Torah before the end of the school year, with the idea of the bar mitzvah ceremony.
“I give credit to learning some Torah and the fellowship he took part in,” Rothstein said of West. “That made him want to take this step in Judaism and get a bar mitzvah.”
About 20 students gathered in the shul at Yeshiva Schools for the event on April 17.
“It was a whole crew and there was singing and dancing and we had an outdoor kiddish afterward,” Rothstein said. “It was a very special moment.”
As part of the service, West and Hanks led blessings rather than read from the Torah. Rothstein said that because of the truncated timeline, there wasn’t time to teach the Hebrew necessary.
“The point is, that doesn’t make a difference,” Rothstein said. “I think what was more meaningful was the ‘why.’”
The young men both took the process very seriously and worked to understand what they were reading and why it mattered, said Rothstein.
West said his parents were pleased to hear he had resumed the Jewish journey abandoned when he was 9.
“They were definitely excited,” West said. “They were bummed they couldn’t be there. When they heard that Shmuli and some of his friends had organized lunch for us they were so appreciative.”
West already has students and members of his fraternity lined up to attend services with him next year, said Rothstein.
Hanks is grateful for the experience he’s been given by Chabad House on Campus.
“For a lot of people, Judaism — especially at Chabad if you’re a college student — is about going home,” he said. “For me it’s been a real adventure and journey. It’s different. It’s new. I don’t know what the holidays are. I don’t speak Hebrew. I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time and it’s beautiful.”
Part of Chabad’s mission is to help students like Hanks and West experience Judaism “on their own terms,” Rothstein said. And if that leads to a deeper involvement, all the better.
“I’m here to help them explore and get in touch with their Jewish identity,” he said. “If, along the way, they want to start learning and have a bar mitzvah and put on tefillin and become more in tune with their Judaism, perfect, I’m so happy. But I’m just as happy for them to come in and get in touch with their Jewish neshama (soul). That’s what the Rebbe taught.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.