When Zoe Cook-Nadel began her freshman year at Pennsylvania State University in August 2015, she knew that she wanted to find a way to make Jewish connection and education a priority. And when she noticed Rabbi Hershy Gourarie, a 25-year-old guy with a warm and welcoming grin manning a table at the campus Involvement Fair, she got a feeling that she had found her way in.
Gourarie and his wife Miri, 22, have been at the helm of Penn State Chabad of the Undergrads for a year now and in that short time have already made a significant difference in Jewish life on campus.
“When I saw Rabbi Hershy at the Involvement Fair, I immediately went over and saw how welcoming and engaging he was,” recalled Cook-Nadel, a New Jersey native who was raised in a traditional Conservative home. “I wanted a place that was a little more observantly Jewish, and Chabad welcomed me with open arms.”
The Gouraries are easy to relate to, Cook-Nadel said, because they are so young.
“Miri and I connected instantly and became friends right away,” she said. “Rabbi Hershy and Miri are both just so cool and enthusiastic. I was really blessed to find them at Penn State.”
Miri Gourarie said her youth has helped to forge strong bonds with the students.
“I’d be a senior this year,” Miri Gourarie noted. “It’s a real big way to connect to them. They relate to me as someone their age. We befriend them, and we treat them like family.”
Cook-Nadel is a regular at the Gourarie’s Shabbat dinners, which typically attract between 30 and 40 people each week, a considerable increase from the handful of students who attended the weekly meals at Chabad prior to the arrival of the young couple.
Cook-Nadel has also been a recipient of Miri Gourarie’s homemade chicken soup, delivered to her dorm personally by the rabbi one day when she was feeling ill.
“The rabbi called me and said ‘I’m bringing soup over,’” Cook-Nadel said. “I feel like I’m home, and they are my family.”
Chabad has had a presence on the Penn State campus for the last 15 years, under the auspices of co-directors Sarah and Rabbi Nosson Meretsky. The Meretskys are now heading up the umbrella group Chabad of Penn State, serving the university’s Jewish graduate community and focusing on faculty relations and expanding Chabad’s services to the overall community.
“We focus on the undergraduates,” said Hershy Gourarie of the mission to which he and his wife have been assigned. “Chabad at Penn State is expanding, and they wanted some younger blood.”
There are an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Jewish students at Penn State. In addition to Chabad, there is an active Hillel, as well as several other affiliated Jewish groups, including Students Supporting Israel, and ADAMAH — Penn State’s Jewish Environmental Group.
Although the university does not offer a kosher dining option, the Gouraries are hoping to work with the administration to bring kosher food to campus, thereby making the university a more attractive option for Jewish students observing the dietary laws.
In the meantime, those undergraduates wanting a kosher, home-cooked meal are welcome to join the Gouraries and their infant daughter at their home.
“I have a 14-week-old baby, and about 100 babysitters,” Miri Gourarie said. “She’s like a human ‘pass the package.’ She’s a big attraction here.”
“Our goal is not to be an organization, but to be a family,” said Hershy Gourarie, admitting he is probably more like an older brother than a father to the students he serves.
He emphasized the “no pressure policy” of Chabad of the Undergrads.
“We have a very laid back, very haimishe atmosphere,” he said. “Jews of all backgrounds are accepted here. If they’re Jewish, they’re family.”
In addition to the Shabbat dinners, the Gouraries have hosted many other programs, including an eight-week Sinai Scholar Society educational course, a Sunday morning BLT (bagel, lox and tefillin) group, and a Chillin’ and Grillin’ Tuesday night barbecue.
“People should know there are very good Jewish options at Penn State,” Gourarie said. “And a family ready to welcome them.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.