It was under the direction of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (commonly and lovingly referred to as “The Rebbe” by practitioners of the Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy of Judaism) in the 1950s that Chabad began setting up permanent educational and resource centers for Jewish students on university campuses across the nation. According to Chabad at the University of Arizona’s current shaliach, or emissary, Rabbi Yossi Winner, the organization became active on the UA campus in the early 1980s. It wasn’t until 2005, though — the year Winner and his wife, Naomi, moved to Tucson from New York to begin their journey as co-directors of the UA branch of Chabad — that a grant from the Rohr Family Foundation enabled them to establish a physical home base for themselves and the students they serve.
For the last 10 years, a humble 2,000-square-foot home near the southeast corner of Euclid Avenue and Speedway Boulevard has been home to the Winners as well as their five children and any one of the nearly 4,000 Jewish students at the UA who find themselves in need of spiritual advice, an air-conditioned place to cool off or just a hot, home-cooked Shabbat meal each Friday. Winner says that when he and his wife first began serving their now-standard five-course Shabbat dinner 10 years ago, they would feed in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 students per night. Soon the regular crowd was closer to 100 students every Friday, so the Winners set up an air-conditioned tent in their backyard to accommodate the overflow.
Though they don’t have any intention of ditching the tent altogether, when the new custom-built, 6,000-square-foot Chabad house at Drachman Street and Vine Avenue is complete this winter, it is likely that the Winners won’t need the additional space, outside of special occasions. While the Winners have been literally sharing their home with their students all of these last 10 years, the new building will include a private upstairs apartment for the Winners and their children, as well as a dining room large enough to host everyone in attendance at their weekly Shabbat; a state-of-the-art kitchen with separate, dedicated stations for meat and dairy; a student lounge; a basketball court; a barbecue area; and guest rooms for students interested in having the full 25-hour Shabbat experience.
Chabad purchased the site for the building three years ago, though only recently was the campus organization ready to begin construction thanks to a bank loan, an additional grant from the Rohr Foundation and other donations. They broke ground on the project in April and the Winners expect to be able to move their family and Chabad operations to the new space in December. “G-d willing, we’ll get to see the Chanukah lights in the windows of the new Chabad house this year,” said Winner. The rabbi says that, in total, Chabad’s fundraising efforts have raised about $1 million of the $1.5 million needed to complete the project, adding that he has faith that the total campaign goal will be met by the projected end date for construction.
According to Winner, in the last decade the Chabad UA house has served nearly 100,000 kosher meals free of charge to Jewish UA students for Shabbat, High Holy Days and Passover Seders — an event that can attract as many as 500 students to the space each year — and every single one of those meals was lovingly prepared by his wife, Naomi. In case you’re wondering how much it takes to feed a small army of hungry college students every Friday night, we’re talking about 30 quarts of soup, 100 hand-rolled matzah balls, salads and an assortment of dessert dishes each week.
Along with food and guidance, Naomi says that Chabad aims to provide sort of a “home-away-from-home” for the young adults in their charge. “They’re becoming independent for the first time,” she says. “For many it’s their first time away from home, and just to be there, to get to be a part of their journey, and to aid them in any way that we can is truly an unbelievable experience.”
In the current space, Naomi says it takes her an average of three days to prepare each week’s Shabbat meal — even longer for holidays and other special events. In the new kitchen, though, she anticipates that she’ll be able to get the whole meal done in a single day. “That’s one of the goals,” she said of the building’s updated design.
“Rabbi Winner is very welcoming and so is Naomi, his wife. It’s a good community, a good place to go, and you really get a chance to connect to your roots, especially being away from home,” says Tara Levenstein, a sophomore from Los Angeles, adding that the Winners’ five children are “super cute.”
“It is nice to go to where they identify with your religious affiliation, and I’ve always had the guidance of a rabbi in my life,” says Levenstein, noting that she attended one of Winner’s “intellectual and contemplative” religion classes at the Chabad house last year. He makes “a great mentor” for her and her fellow Jewish Wildcats, she says.
Winner attributes some of the success of the Chabad UA to the connection he’s able to forge with “today’s cutting-edge Jewish students” through mystical Jewish teachings. For example, he says, “The Rebbe taught us that every Jew has a neshama, a soul — irrelevant of how practicing or not practicing they are, they’re nevertheless connected just as deeply to HaShem, to G-d, and we, as shlichim, are here just to ignite the inner flame that’s already there.” And no doubt his job of fanning those embers will be made that much easier once everyone is able to fit at the dinner table.
For more information on Chabad at the University of Arizona, visit ChabadUA.com.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.