Lily Laredo’s freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, like that of her quarantined, pandemic-impacted peers, was anything but typical. But this year, as COVID-19 restrictions ease and she is able to participate more in Jewish life on campus, the Westchester County, New York, native feels more at home.
“This year, everything’s like actually normal, and there are very few limitations on what you can and cannot do,” said Laredo, a sophomore studying business. “Every aspect of college has been great this year.”
At the center of Jewish life for many young adults like Laredo is Chabad of CMU, which started hosting Shabbat meals again when the fall semester began in late August. Every Friday night, dozens of young CMU students gather at the campus’ Chabad house, where they are welcomed by Rabbi Shlomo Silverman and his family for a home-cooked meal and a bit of reflection.
The fact that, this year, the meals are held in person instead of being picked up by students in to-go containers makes all the difference, Silverman told the Chronicle.
“I think we’re seeing a crazy number of students wanting to socialize and rebound and get back to normal,” he said. “It’s great. I think people needed this for their mental health, their physical health. … We do the best we can to keep everyone engaged and excited. But, the students, they’re definitely coming.”
Silverman estimates he and his family host about 50 students each Friday night for Shabbat dinner.
For Carmel Baharav, the dinner is a much-welcomed chance to unplug from the week.
“I can’t keep away from technology all Saturday but I can for two hours at Friday night dinner — and that gives me a little rest or rejuvenation,” said the Palo Alto, California, native, who is a senior studying computer science. “It’s really, really lovely to just be a person.”
Silverman said Chabad is active with on-campus programming and has found a receptive audience in the new freshman class at CMU. For example, they brought in the Jewish new year at Rosh Hashanah and hosted events in the sukkah for Sukkot.
“This past month, it’s the busiest month of the Jewish calendar — these are things that last year, we couldn’t do,” said Silverman, who stressed that Chabad always follows local and CDC guidelines regarding COVID-19.
“For safety and well-being, we do what we have to do,” he said, adding that guests wear masks indoors except when eating.
But the Friday night dinners have been very special, he said, and the students are appreciating the Silverman home events.
“Sophomores and freshman this year are really brand new, so we sit around the table and sing songs,” Silverman said. “That Jewish camaraderie — you can’t replicate that with a to-go meal.”
Last year, CMU senior Jordan Loev would pick up meals from Chabad, then celebrate Shabbat with two or three close friends.
“Now, it’s 40 or 50 people sometimes,” he told the Chronicle. “Having that communal aspect again, being part of that extended Chabad family, is nice.”
Loev, who majors in finance and accounting at CMU, is looking forward to programs related to holidays like Hanukkah, because the fact that events are now in person is a total game-changer for him.
“Honestly,” he said, “it’s pretty amazing.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writing living in Pittsburgh.