With the start of the school year fast approaching, it’s a time of new and hopeful beginnings for many, including the new shluchim in charge of the University of Pittsburgh’s undergraduate students, Chasi and Shmuel Rothstein. The Rothsteins, who have been in Pittsburgh learning the ropes since January, will have their official start this fall, rolling up their sleeves and getting to work as the students return from summer vacation.
The Rothsteins, who will be working within the greater umbrella organization of Chabad on Campus, which is run by Shmuel and Sara Weinstein, already have a backlog of experience on campus to draw from, and not just from the past six months of training. Before Chasi Rothstein was married, she was Chasi Weinstein and grew up just a short walk from the Pittsburgh campuses. Chasi said that she’s always had a passion for campus shlichus, and she felt “felt very grateful” to have grown up in a home that was always open to others; she loved being able to see “the difference you can make in people’s lives.” The chance to continue that work seemed, to both of them, to be ““an awesome opportunity.” It also meant a lot of practical knowledge and prior hands-on experiences to draw from, always helpful when undertaking a job of this magnitude. Shmuel said that for many years he was interested in becoming a doctor, but as a teenager, he went to visit his brother, who is also a campus shliach for Vanderbilt University, and realized that this was what he really wanted to do with his life.
Shmuel said that campus shlichus is so vital, since for many students, the years on campus are marked by exploration and more open minds than perhaps there would be later in life. For students, these years can be “essential” turning points in their lives. He also acknowledged that it can be tough for the students to open up and feel comfortable. “Here I am, a rabbi with a big beard,” which could be unfamiliar or perhaps strange to some, but Shmuel emphasizes that the goal of campus shluchim is, “We’re here to help you; we’re here because we love you” and also to show the students that, far from being awkward or confusing, Judaism is “actually fantastic.”
Shmuel added that it’s important to pick up on the vibe of the campus and make sure that you tailor the events to it. It’s vital to learn how “to talk to your campus.” What else is vital? Making sure that you’re providing a “safe, healthy place to get together [and a] nonjudgmental atmosphere” for the students to feel welcome and comfortable in. They also hope to be there for the students, “sometimes through good things and sometimes through hard times. Just being there, helping them discover their Yiddishkeit at their own level they feel comfortable with.” The prevailing message they hope to project is, “We’re here; we have an open house, come on in.”
Talking to the Rothsteins, who were in the midst of packing up for the move closer to campus, it’s so clear that this is a passion project for them. Some nerves are audible but much more identifiable is eagerness and excitement. Shmuel said that “where we are now, we saw ourselves being a year from now,” and both are happy with the positive reaction they’ve seen so far from Pitt students.
One anecdote shared by the Rothsteins encapsulated this passion perfectly. Chasi recounted that, during Pesach last year, a student asked her if they would be serving meals during the intermediary days as well. Chasi said that she told the student that, while there was no official meal, any and all students were welcome to go to the Weinsteins to eat. Shmuel had been teaching a class to students called Parsha and Pizza — a weekly class on the Torah portion accompanied by free pizza. During Pesach, when leavened bread is of course forbidden, the thought was that they would call the class Parsha and Matzah instead. After her conversation with the student though, Chasi had a brainwave. If the students are hungry, she figured — accurately —- that they would have a tough time paying attention to the class. So instead of sending matzah and grape juice, she cooked chicken and potatoes for the students, they texted a few people, and then they headed off to campus, thinking, “We’ll see what happens.” The usual turnout for the class was around six people. On this night, around 20 students showed up. Chasi described the scene: As more people arrived, “the room was getting pretty tight. We ran out of plates and forks, the pans were licked clean, people were sharing seats.” In fact, the students loved it so much that by the evening, they were asking if they could repeat the class and dinner the next evening. In the end, the Rothsteins ended up holding dinner and the class every night of Chol Hamo’ed, about 50 individual dinners. Chasi said that they “were so happy” to feel so needed and to be able to fulfill “something that was missing before.”
The Rothsteins added that, with 27 years of campus shlichus under their belt, the Weinsteins were looking to expand and that this was a “great opportunity” to be a part of something important and “a way for us to make a difference.” With all of the anti-Israel and sometime anti-Semitic rhetoric that is so common on campuses today, they feel happy to see that “Judaism is alive, it’s growing, and it’s really exciting to be a part of it. That’s what it’s all about.”
Masha Shollar is an intern for The Chronicle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.