Shabbat dinner at Binghamton University draws 2,200 participants

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(April 9, 2024 / Binghamton, NY / Chabad of Binghamton) – A mega Shabbat dinner on Friday night served to unify the Jewish community of Binghamton University in New York with a record 2,200 students participating. The Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life sponsored the April 5 event, saying that it was the largest gathering of students in one place for a Shabbat dinner to date.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of a communitywide Shabbat meal that began with 1,000 participants in 1994 and was led by Chabad of Binghamton Co-directors Rabbi Aaron and Rivkah Slonim. About 4,000 Jewish students attend Binghamton, with as many as 1,500 active in programs, events and holidays at the campus Chabad during the academic year in one capacity or another.

“There’s a very special feeling in the room for those who put their whole heart and soul into making it and for those who experience what may be their once-a-year connection to Judaism,” said Goldie Ohana, the programming director of Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton.

“It means everything to me to just spend the night together in unity,” said Michal Levine, a junior, who volunteered to help coordinate the event.

It took a collective effort to pull it all off. Some 235 student volunteers came together to organize, set up and coordinate the Shabbat dinner, which was free and open to all students, faculty and staff.

Harvey Stenger, president of the university, said the annual event “is one of the university’s great traditions and has been emulated by colleges around the world since it began 30 years ago. My thanks go out to Rabbi Slonim and the Rohr Chabad Center, as well as the many student volunteers who make this event possible. Many of our students are away from home and Shabbat 2400 allows them to experience familiar comforts, and build a sense of belonging, through sharing a meal with other members of the university community.”

The annual event has taken on greater significance considering the unprecedented level of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment on campuses throughout North America, especially since the terrorist attacks in southern Israel on October 7.

“We’re in such a troubling time for the Jewish nation; it can feel very despondent,” Ohana said. “With this event that we create and the atmosphere that’s put out, it’s about being stronger and prouder in our Jewish identity and connecting as many Jews as we can with Hashem. There’s no better time to deepen our Jewish pride.”

The Shabbat 2400 dinner at Binghamton has spawned similar programs on campuses across the country and around the world, and many vendors and organizations donated funds and services. It required more than 775 pounds of chicken, 360 pounds of challah, 2,200 matzah balls and 250 large bottles of grape juice, among other items. There were 240 Shabbat tables set up at the Binghamton University Events Center.

“People don’t understand how they can get food for over 2,000 people,” said sophomore Haley Wilenzick, one of the three head organizers of Shabbat 2400. “But it’s because of all the volunteers who are helping out. The kitchen was full of singing and energy as they cooked.”

A.J. Keiser, a sophomore and business major from West Orange, NJ, helped prepare food. He says he was amazed to see “the willingness of people to just step up and help in any way they can and continue to just offer their time to make sure this program runs as well as possible.”

Before the onset of Shabbat, students were welcomed with video greetings from influencers: Montana Tucker, Inbar Lavi and Mayim Bialik. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul also addressed the crowd.

The services began with Jewish women coming together to welcome Shabbat with candle-lighting before the dinner, highlighted by Shabbat traditions such as kiddush and Shabbat hymns and songs.

Wilenzick said: “To finally see it come to fruition and just be surrounded by 2,200 people is really powerful.”
Preparations began back in October. “It’s a lot of teamwork, delegating and communication,” said Levine, who is majoring in Judaic studies with a minor in Israel studies and education. “We also come up with new creative ideas of how to publicize the event and get people really engaged.”

All were invited to attend, not just Jewish students, who brought friends and acquaintances. A publicity blitz, “Matzah-Ball Mania,” was held prior to the dinner. Volunteers handed out matzah-ball soup on campus and had people guess the weight of huge challahs.

The first mega-Shabbat event was held in the fall of 1994. With it, the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University started a revolution: to join as many Jewish students as possible in a celebration of Shabbat, and more broadly, Jewish identity. Originally dubbed Shabbat 1000, the program evolved into a tradition that has since been replicated on more than 150 campuses worldwide.

To this day, Binghamton maintains the record for the largest number of students gathered in one space for a Shabbat dinner. And now there’s a second generation getting to experience the joy of a mega-Shabbat celebrated with thousands of friends and peers.

Among them was Levine, who was inspired to get involved by her mother, herself a Binghamton alumna who graduated in 1994. “I grew up hearing all these stories about the Jewish community and how strong it was and her relationship with Rabbi Slonim and his wife, Rivkah,” she said. “To see from the small community that my mom had to how much it’s grown 30 years later, I feel that it’s my home.”

For Keiser, the Shabbat 2400 means “achdut – being united and realizing that no matter what level of observance or religiosity, we’re all Jews, and all we really want is to celebrate Shabbat together.”