During the weeklong gap between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when Jews repent, reflect and take stock of what they have, a few hundred gathered at the O’Hara Student Center on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus Wednesday, Sept. 11, night to celebrate Chabad on Campus’ presence in Pittsburgh and role in their lives.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Pittsburgh’s Chabad House on Campus — the Shadyside landmark that is run by Rabbi Shmuel Weinstein and his wife, Sara.
“At Chabad house, each student becomes a part of our family,” said Sara Weinstein. “Our slogan since the beginning has been ‘the warmest place away from home.’ The bond between the students is deep and everlasting.”
The bond between Chabad and its students over the past 25 years has proved so enduring that to properly commemorate its quarter-century of serving Pittsburgh’s Jewish student population, the Weinsteins felt they couldn’t limit the celebration to just Pittsburgh.
They wanted to reconnect with their alumni scattered all over the country, and launched a tour with stops in New York, San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles to do so. Its final stop, the Wednesday evening gala in the former Concordia Club, included food, awards and a keynote address from Rabbi David Nesenoff.
Nesenoff, the self-described “Howie Mendel of Chabad,” is most famous for capturing and posting to the Internet a video of White House journalist Helen Thomas making controversial comments about Israel during American Jewish Heritage Day on the North Lawn of the White House in May of 2010.
During what was ostensibly an hour of three parts stand-up comedy, one part sermon, Nesenoff relayed the story blow-by-blow. He had been working on a movie, he said, in which he went around asking all kinds of people to make comments about Israel when he happened to encounter Thomas at the event.
After debating what to do with the video for several days, Nesenoff posted it to YouTube and linked it from his website. Then, he shut off the computer just before Shabbat. When he turned the computer back on after Shabbat, the video had nearly 750,000 views.
“And that’s just the people who don’t observe Shabbos,” he said.
The video proved to be Thomas’ downfall. She was forced to resign, agencies dropped her and her name was removed from numerous awards and scholarships.
Touching on themes of being good to one another and continuously asking questions and seeking truth, Nesenoff discussed receiving 25,000 pieces of hate mail in the wake of releasing the video, his search for a message in his dealings with the media and how the experience changed his life.
In addition to the Helen Thomas incident that thrust him into the national spotlight, Nesenoff gregariously mused on fatherhood, his dislike of flying and his move from Conservative Judaism to Chabad.
“People ask me how I changed from Conservative to Chabad. It’s a very simple story,” he said. “A guy came over to me and asked me, ‘Do you like cake?’ Well, I like cake.”
(Matthew Wein can be reached at email@example.com.)