My name is Brian Essig and I am a 21-year-old Jew living in Salt Lake City. I am currently attending the University of Utah and plan on graduating with a degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism by the summer of 2015. When I tell people that I am a Jew from Salt Lake City, I am always greeted with a look of great surprise, like they are meeting someone they did not even know existed. This used to frustrate me, but as I have grown older I have learned to love to tell people about my religious background. Recently I was given the opportunity to attend the annual NYC Shabbaton conference with three of my Jewish friends from the University of Utah, where I gained a whole new appreciation for my Jewish identity.
I was lucky enough to go on my Birthright trip to Israel in June of 2012. Prior to my Birthright trip I had no idea what opportunities were going to open up to me as I became more closely connected to my Jewish roots. Being from Utah, the only place that I am truly interactive with a Jewish crowd is on holidays and at some events. It goes without saying that interacting with other Jews on a day-to-day basis is a rare occasion for me. What I enjoyed most about my Birthright trip was the opportunity to hang out with a group of Jewish kids in an environment where we could talk, pray, and enjoy each other’s company for 10 straight days. When I look back on growing up Jewish, I knew I was proud to be a Jew, but going to services and studying for Hebrew school always seemed to be a task. As I have matured I have become so much more grateful to have Judaism in my life, and it is now something that I cannot picture living without out.
Before we arrived in New York for the annual Shabbaton we had absolutely no idea what to expect. We knew that it was a fairly popular Jewish Conference with hundreds of kids in attendance, and we were all very excited for our upcoming opportunities. When we pulled into Crown Heights, NY I started having many flashbacks of my trip to Israel, and that is when I knew it was going to be a great weekend. I thought the most interesting part of the weekend was interacting with other Jewish students from all walks of life. I met so many great people, some being very similar to me, some with many differences. However, there was one thing that I had in common with every single person at the Shabbaton, and that was our Judaism. It was a pretty euphoric feeling knowing that I had a connection with all of these students that is stronger than most of the connections I have with most of my friends at home. It was such an exciting weekend meeting so many different people; this was truly an experience that I will remember vividly for quite a while.
One of the main highlights of my weekend was having the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat with our host family, the Kramer’s. The thing that amazed me the most was how entertaining a dinner can be by relaxing and enjoying the company of family and friends that you are with. Sitting down at the dinner table without any cell phones or further distractions was extremely comforting, and made the dinner conversation all the much greater. While I was enjoying this lovely Shabbat dinner I got to thinking, and what blew me away was the idea that almost every single household in Crown Heights was doing the same exact same thing as us. It was a very humbling experience knowing that even in todays day and age, in one of the busiest cities in the entire world, that it is still important enough to take time every Friday night in order to enjoy the company of family and friends.
Prior to attending the NYC Shabbaton we made a deal with Rabbi Zippel. Everything for the weekend was going to be taken care of as far as monetary concerns, and we would repay the Rabbi as well as the rest of the Jewish community through our work. We attended the NYC Shabbaton as representatives from the University of Utah Jewish Students Association. The program has been great in years past but recently it has needed a revamp. After this past weekend I am more motivated than ever to get this organization back on track. If I have learned one thing in the past two years since I have attended Birthright and the NYC Shabbaton, it is that I am extremely proud of my Jewish identity, and I could not be more excited to bring this feeling to other Jews on campus at the University of Utah.
My name is Ben Anisman, and I am a Freshman at the University of Utah. Unlike many people living in Utah, I have only lived here for a few years. My Dad was a doctor in the Air Force, where he met my mom, while he was stationed in England. As you can probably imagine, my Dad being in the Air Force led us to move four times by the time I was 13. Because of this I never had a community that I was particularly attached to. A community is defined as 'a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.' Being a military brat myself, a solid community, let alone a Jewish community is something that I have never had. The places I have lived have had the minimal of what you can truly call a Jewish community. But that never stopped me from continuing to practice Judaism and discover my Jewish identity. In 2009 when I joined the organization BBYO, I found a community. In the unlikely city of Salt Lake City, I found a group of teenagers who I shared an incredible amount in common with, and the fact that they were Jewish as well made the community so much sweeter. The next four years were a time when I learned more about myself, my community, and my religion than I ever had before. But when I was a senior and it came time for me to leave BBYO, I had to find a new community. So with three of my closest friends, the Jewish Students Association was rejuvenated.
When I was asked if I wanted to go to the Chabad on Campus Shabbaton I was thrilled. The idea of coming together with even more Jews reminded me of the amazing experiences I had in BBYO, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. Upon arrival in Crown Heights, I got butterflies. Seeing signs in Hebrew, advertisements for Bisli's, and most of all Jews; it was a feeling that I had only gotten when I visited Israel in 2012. But just when we arrived, we were off again on a tour of the city. As we drove farther and farther from Crown Heights, I thought the community that was behind us would soon disappear. Once we got off the bus though, I noticed my community had come with me. Still in Times Square we walked by Kosher restaurants and stores with mezuzot on them. The butterflies were back.
That evening, we celebrated Shabbat at our wonderful host families house, the Kramer's. While sitting around a lovely table, eating amazing food, Rabbi Kramer told us the significance of our Hebrew names. Telling us stories of where our names came from, and the meaning of our names. It was in that moment that I came to my breakthrough of the weekend. The Jewish community has been here for thousands of years. The Jewish community has never left me and I have never been without it. The Jewish community will always be with us through the Torah, through the traditions, through the culture that is Judaism.
After coming back and reflecting on this experience a little more, I am even more excited about getting JSA started and helping my community thrive! The Shabbaton was such an amazing and inspiring experience, it is a weekend I would recommend to everyone.
While I have visited Israel multiple times, I had yet to go to the Holy Land of the West: New York. This past month Rabbi Zippel presented myself and three other Jewish students from the University of Utah an amazing opportunity. Earlier in the year with the help of Rabbi Zippel we had restarted the presence of the Jewish Students Association at the University of Utah. And now we were extended a complementary invitation to attend Campus Shabbaton in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Three weeks later; Samuel Feinman, Brian Essig, Ben Anisman, and myself were packing our bags for a red eye flight to join 800 college students across the world in what would become one of the most spiritual and enjoyable weekends of our lives.
Arriving at a comfy seven in the morning we met our amazing chaperone of the weekend, Yosef Kramer. A true blessing to have him with us, Yosef was a star in the neighborhood of Crown Heights. He and his family took in four Jewish students from the great desert of Utah and gave us a weekend to remember. We began with a seven-hour tour of NYC, a late lunch of Kosher Pizza, and then began the official Shabbaton weekend. An hour in I had met and befriended more Jews my age than I had ever even seen. We were THE JEWS from Utah. Everyone loved us. Every Rabbi chaperone especially came over to learn our names, life stories, and of course to give their compliments to our very own famous Rabbi Zippel. It was truly a great time.
I grew up attending Chabad, but I was by no means there for every Saturday morning and as the years went by I found myself only attending for the High Holidays. So for me many of the experiences of this weekend were a new and spiritually rejuvenating feeling. The four of us ate strictly kosher, benched after every meal, and davened on the regular. Along with this and the regular services we attended many different series of lectures from some very famous Jews. Among the speakers were keynote speaker Kivi Bernhard, and Dr. David Nesenoff – best known for his conflict with White House Correspondent Helen Thomas. The conferences approached issues ranging from the Animal Soul, Hasidism in the modern world, and the Jewish history of Israel. Not only was the weekend very spiritual, but quite educational as well.
I had gone through many experiences on this trip, but my favorite parts were the opening and then closing of Shabbat. Our Shabbat dinner at the Kramer Residence was truly amazing. The dinner placements were beautiful and the food tasted unbelievable. Even better was the conversation. Yosef’s father led us in a discussion about the meaning of Shabbat prayers, the importance of our Hebrew names, and the history of our people. Afterwards Yosef took us on the Shabbat rounds to visit other homes in the community and socialize with other visiting students. The ending ceremony of Shabbat was as great. While I’ve experienced my share of Havdallah ceremonies, never to such a grand scale. To hear the prayers said by 800 separate voices, being led by singer Moshe Hecht, was truly wonderful. Hearing “David Melech Yisrael” and “Odon Olam” to such a grand scale was definitely an experience to remember. The dancing was even more of a sight. As a break-dancing Rabbi dragged Ben to the middle, the rest of us joined the great circle of dancers that had begun to form. Yosef never missed a beat or stride, dancing with the ability to rival any professional, fueling the rest of us with energy to dance our hearts out. In Hasidism dance is believed to be a tool for expressing joy, purifying the soul, and unifying the community. And I have to say, in all my life, I had never once felt so connected to Jews across the entire world as I did at that moment.
Our Trip concluded with a visit to the Ohel, the resting place of Rebbe Menachem. While the physical presence of the Rebbe has left us, his spirit still resides. The Rebbe, who personally sent Rabbi Zippel to Utah, built a network of over 3600 institutions across the world. The idea of Chabad on Campus sprouted from this, so in a sense the 800 Shabbaton attendees owed their presence and experience to the Rebbe. It was only fitting that all would pay their respects before the weekend was over. It was a spiritual climax to a weekend that furthered my sense of Judaism and renewed my need for Ruakh (Jewish Spirit).
-David Abolnik, President of JSA Utah.
The Rebbe had once told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “you will be serving in a house of darkness, but remember, that even in the darkest place; the light of a single candle can be seen far and wide…" As I entered the Ohel I recalled having heard this and pondered its application to the moment. Here lay the resting place of the last and seventh Rebbe, beside his father’s grave. Reminiscent of the Western Wall, I was filled with grief for what was lost but at the same time felt hope for the future. With the loss of one of the greatest scholars and teachers of the 21st century it was certainly a time of darkness, but the light of Judaism shining brighter in the future could still be seen. Less than ten years after the Rebbe’s passing and that time of darkness he would be visited by almost a thousand Jewish college students concluding one of the best weekends of their lives. A weekend completely attributed to the Rebbe’s great work. Rabbi Shais Taub described our visit to the Ohel with the remarks that while the Ohel was a spiritual visit for the benefit of the students; we were also there for the Rebbe himself. You see the Rebbe LOVED Jews. Jews of all shapes, sizes, and practices. And a visit to the Ohel greatly pleased the spiritual presence of the Rebbe. Standing beside the Ohel I thought of those remarks and smiled. My three companions from the University of Utah and myself certainly owed the Rebbe that much. Without the Rebbe, there would be a major lack of Jewry in Utah, and certainly no Utah representatives at Campus Shabbaton. Visiting the Ohel was as landmark in my life as the first time I set my eyes upon the Kotel and a moment I shall not forget.
If I were to sum up my Jewish upbringing in a single word, that word would be minimal. I had a Bar Mitzvah and frequented events with the Jewish youth group, BBYO; being Jewish was nothing more than a unique label in a Mormon-dominated city. While I did feel a particular connection to other Jews, that reaction was largely due to the fact that there are not many in Salt Lake, which left me with a shallow feeling of camaraderie for the Jewish people. My borderline apathetic feelings towards Judaism briskly changed, however, after my experience at Chabad on Campus’ Shabbaton. In one fell swoop, my perception of Judaism and the Jewish people was altered, giving me a sense of pride and togetherness with people whom I can call, for the first time, my people.
I had no idea what to expect from this event. All I knew was that I would be spending a weekend with Jewish students from across the country, which, before my departure, sounded like just another BBYO weekend trip for college students. Almost immediately after entering Crown Heights, however, I knew that I was in for a completely new experience. I was excited to be immersed in an Orthodox lifestyle, from keeping kosher to wearing tefillin everyday, the latter being something I had never done until a week before the trip. Almost immediately after entering our host family’s home, I felt Jewish, something I have not truly felt since my Bar Mitzvah years before. While I could not put my finger on it, I knew that my experience in not only Shabbaton, but also this household, would be one of realization and awakening.
Our first night we had an immaculate Shabbat dinner with our host family, filled with prayer, delicious food, and, most importantly, stories. Our host, Rabbi Yosef Kramer’s, father began talking about the haftarah, specifically portions that had to do with all of our Hebrew names. When I was asked for mine, I casually replied, “Shlomo.” What caught me by surprise was how fast I could recall my name, considering I never truly identified with that name and it had been years since anyone referred to me as it. While I remembered that I shared a name with King Solomon, I was never educated on my name beyond that basic fact. Yosef’s dad, however, indulged me with the story of Solomon, going well beyond just his name. I found myself particularly engaged in what he had to say with regards to his role as a leader and how he was a celebrated king. This was the first time in my life that I was able to indentify with my Hebrew name, something I could never say I have done before. His stories affected me in more ways than I could have imagined, namely that I could begin relating to my Jewish roots. It was during this evening that the name Shlomo was no longer a name, but a story that I could not only relate to, but also be proud of.
The following evening, I found myself, once again, inspired by what used to be a mundane event for me: Havdallah. Practically a chore before, I was never engrossed by the service, it was just a bunch of prayers that I had to recite. At Shabbaton, however, Havdallah was one of the most spiritual events I had experienced in my life. Being surrounded by upwards of 800 Jews, I had never heard prayer sung with such conviction and pride. Growing up, prayer was something that was memorized and recited when commanded to do so, but here, prayer was something to be sung with purpose. Even though I could not remember all of the words to the songs, let alone describe what was being said, singing alongside Rabbis and my peers was empowering. It hit me that I was chanting sacred words that truly meant something to these people, and in that same night, I could say that ‘these people’ included me. Shouting at the top of my lungs alongside my Jewish brethren was an indescribable experience. I even found myself fervently dancing amongst the crowd, something I seldom do considering my admittedly timid disposition. After catching my breath and taking in everything I had experienced by this point, I was sure that I had maximized my Jewish experience; however, the following day proved me wrong.
Our trip concluded with a visit to the Ohel. I had no knowledge of this place, nor did I know of the Rebbe. I was told that we would be writing letters, kvitlack, and seeing the grave of the seventh Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel. Just like how I felt about the trip as a whole, I didn’t know what to expect from visiting his grave. What I found was that this experience was one of the most spiritual events of my 20 years of life. The humbling feeling of standing next to such a powerful, respected, and holy man was significant in a way I couldn’t exactly exaplain. Even though I was not sure what I felt during my two minutes of standing next to his grave, I know I felt something. A something that can never be replicated. A something that could have only come from being so close to this particular man. A something that could have only been experienced by me, a Jew.
The cathartic moment that I had at the presence of the Rebbe defined my experience at Shabbaton. It made me proud to be a Jew and it made me realize that I have a special connection with the Jewish people, a connection that not many people will experience in their life. I am so fortunate and grateful to have been able to go on this trip, and I now feel a deeper and more substantial understanding of what it means to be a Jew.