Rabbi Hirschy Zarchi, Chabad House director at Harvard, climbed atop a chair last Friday evening to make his Sabbath address. “How many of you ate gefilte fish tonight?” he asked triumphantly. Zarchi didn’t get much of a response. Few of the 650-plus students sitting in the dining room of Harvard’s Annenberg Hall could hear him. At that point, though, it didn’t much matter. Zarchi had helped put together the biggest Sabbath dinner in the university’s history — and it had been a resounding success.
The dinner, perhaps optimistically dubbed Shabbat 1000, was a rare feat in the increasingly balkanized realm of campus Jewish life. In planning the event, Chabad had joined forces with its sometime rival, Hillel. To help underscore the evening’s theme of openness — and to help draw students who ordinarily don’t attend Jewish functions on campus — the meal was served in the familiar confines of Annenberg Hall, where all undergraduates eat during their freshman year.
“We have found that most Jews, if you ask them why they don’t go to a regular Shabbat Hillel or Chabad, they say it’s because they’re not religious,” Zarchi told the Forward. “This [dinner] demonstrates that to participate in Shabbat, you don’t have to be, quote unquote, religious. This is a good opener. It’s a very neutral space — a place where all Harvard students come to dine. This dinner allows us to open the door of Judaism to the masses.”
One of the evening’s main draws was an appearance by the university’s president, Larry Summers, who in recent weeks has faced severe criticism from members of his faculty. The president gave a short speech to open the evening, joking that it was a “thrill to attend a warm and friendly Harvard meeting.” Summers marveled at the turnout, reminding his audience that not so long ago, such a gathering would have been unthinkable at Harvard. “It was not always so,” he said, referring to a time when university officials subjected Jews to admissions quotas and systematic discrimination. “But now it is so, and it will always be so,” he said.
After the president’s opening remarks, a pair of Hillel-affiliated undergrads described the ritual Kiddush for the benefit of those dinner guests unfamiliar with it.
And indeed, there were many such guests. Earlier in the evening, one student walked into the dining hall clutching a camera in one hand and an uncorked bottle of white wine in the other. “I’m being Jewish tonight!” he exclaimed, taking a seat next to some friends.
“Why is it called Shabbat 1000?” someone at his table asked. “Is it because they wanted 1,000 people to come?”
“I don’t think this place fits 1,000,” came the answer from across the table. “It’s probably like the Million Man March.”
When Zarchi first climbed up onto his chair to speak, he opened with an ecumenical joke about a priest, a minister and a rabbi — a little something for everyone. Much like Shabbat 1000 itself.
This story "Gefilte Fish Slithers Into Harvard Yard" was written by Leon Neyfakh.