A New Home, New Faces, and New Traditions for Chabad at Oberlin


Yana Levy

The Elkan family recently celebrated their eleventh year of running Chabad at Oberlin in their brand new house.

Chabad leaders Devorah and Rabbi Shlomo Elkan celebrated their 11th anniversary of living in Oberlin last week — what they like to call their “Oberversary” — from a newly reconstructed and expanded house. A project five years in the making, the new Chabad house and surrounding property have enabled Chabad at Oberlin to host in-person, socially distanced gatherings outside. 

Working closely with the Student Union, the Dean of Students Office, and the Office of the President, Chabad at Oberlin has redesigned its weekly Shabbat dinners, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and ongoing Sukkot celebration to be held outside so students can participate safely. 

While the Elkan family initially intended for the group to help Jewish students embrace their identities, they also strove to make the organization a home that is open to both Jewish and non-Jewish students. The new building houses the Elkan family on the top floor, with open spaces below reserved for students to eat and socialize once ObieSafe guidelines allow. 

One of the most prominent features of the house is the expanded kitchen, which was custom-built to provide Kosher and allergen-free fare.

“The old house’s kitchen is smaller than our pantry in this house,” Shlomo said. “We serve a lot of food; the community is often built around the table. … We’re committed to providing Kosher food for students, so there’s a lot of focus on food for religious and community reasons.”

While the added space was sorely needed, the Chabad community will miss the days of cozily cramped Chabad meals.

“It will definitely be an upgrade to be able to walk around without stepping on people,” Chabad Board member and College third-year Havi Carillo-Klein said. “I’ve seen it filled to the absolute brim of brims. What was cool was that it was very homey. You can feel all the love in the room because everyone was so squished, but it was such a community.”

In the original 1,400 square foot house, Chabad and the Elkan family had to innovate to fit an average 60-75 people at Friday night Shabbat dinners. On busy weeks the family set up tables on the porch or some students would sit on the stairs. Still, everyone agrees that the tight crowds strengthened everyone’s sense of camaraderie.

Though few students have seen the inside of the house due to COVID-19, the Elkans have set up heated open-air tents for meals and services outside. During the past week, the Chabad property also housed a Sukkah — a hand-made gathering hut for celebrating the week of Sukkot. For Shlomo, the additional space balances well with the home-like feel the new building has maintained.

“I think it’s a mix of spacious but cozy, so it still feels very homey,” Shlomo said.

Before the pandemic, weekly Shabbat meals were a mainstay of the Chabad at Oberlin experience; Shlomo takes particular care to maintain the same community feeling on Friday nights, even in a socially-distanced time. His regular pre-meal speech was a highlight during Canter’s first year.

“Last year, Shlomo had this schtick where he would start by saying, ‘We have two rules at Chabad house, we take them very seriously,’” Chabad Board member and College second-year Theo Canter said. “‘First is, if you leave here hungry, it’s your own darn fault. We have four wonderful courses, so eat plenty but pace yourself, because [we] don’t like to eat on an empty stomach. The second rule is that you [have to] feel more comfortable here than in your own house, just keep your pants on!’” 

Canter trusts that Shlomo will keep up the jokes and banter with students in the new Chabad house building, especially to combat this semester’s somber mood. 

“I really see Shlomo’s approach to [Judaism] as pretty inspiring,” Canter said. “Because one thing that has kind of pushed me away from embracing religion wholeheartedly is that feeling that it means pushing away the secular world and culture. …The kind of sermons he gives really draw people in who don’t have that much of a background in Judaism.”

Carillo-Klein also feels the organization’s community spirit in Devorah’s efforts to ensure that everyone has delicious food.

“The warm feeling of being in a Chabad house is being with people who genuinely want to be there for you,” Carillo-Klein said, “[Also,] the food is the best on campus. … I have a million dietary restrictions, and so I can’t really eat dessert. And [Devorah] made a cookie called the ‘Havi’ cookie, named after me, that fit all of my dietary restrictions.”

While everyone traditionally contributes to cooking meals, Carillo-Klein says that Devorah is to be credited for most of the cooking, whether they’re serving 65 or 150 people.

“Devorah does most of the work, I just help out at the end,” Carillo-Klein said, “She’s a wizard and a culinary genius.”

On a socially-distanced campus, Chabad at Oberlin focused its efforts to support students. The Elkans welcomed arriving students with move-in packages containing challah bread, a tzedakah box, a porcelain mezuzah, and other gifts. On the weekdays since then, Shlomo has invited students to have socially distanced tea and coffee with him on his front porch to check in on their wellbeing. These personal exchanges have given Shlomo an idea of how the first-year experience at Oberlin has changed this year. 

“For first-years trying to find their place and friend group, they don’t have big events, and even just orientation was so different,” Shlomo said, “So how they’re falling into friendships is very different, so people feeling that pressure, or the social awkwardness around not knowing where their social group is, or who their social circle is. … Everything, even going to pick up dinner in the dining hall, has added stress to it right now.”

Perhaps reflecting these challenges, Canter says that first-years have joined Chabad at Oberlin in unexpected numbers.

“I’ve actually been quite positively surprised by the amount of freshman interested in Chabad events and coming to the High Holiday services and Shabbat gatherings,” Canter said. 

Canter urges anyone interested not to be intimidated by the group’s already tight-knit community. 

“I would want to express to everyone that the doors are open and you are welcomed as you are,” Canter said. “I hope everyone sees Chabad as a resource for things far beyond the religious affirmation. It’s great to be who you are and proud of that. Just as I hope everyone’s identities are embraced here at Oberlin.”

Students are welcome to come witness or participate in an ax-throwing event as part of Sukkot today at 6 p.m. Reserve a spot by texting AX to 440-557-3868. Students can also attend Friday night’s outdoor Shabbat dinners. Attendees receive pre-packaged to-go meals with prayers and thoughts from the rabbi enclosed inside.