By Daniella Byck

Come Friday night, students from the Lakeshore area all the way to Langdon Street throw aside their microwave mac and cheese and prepare for a warm, home-cooked meal. It is the beginning of the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat, and a time that can conjure nostalgia for home traditions. However, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chabad house brings the Shabbat spirit to campus.

“One of the themes of Shabbat is family and community,” said Rabbi Mendel Matusof. “Especially in college where you don’t have family nearby, and so the community is your family.”

Rabbi Matusof and his family run the programming at the UW-Madison Chabad house, teaching classes and hosting holiday celebrations. Each week, dozens of students, alumni and visitors flock to the house to observe Shabbat. On some nights, attendees spill into the next room as more chairs are brought out. Luckily, there is always room and food for more at Chabad Shabbat.

“I do Shabbat every weekend at home so for me it’s nice to be in a communal, home-feeling environment every Friday night,” said Hannah Sopher, a student at UW-Madison.

Henya Matusof, the rabbi’s wife, helps cook the multi-course dinner full of customary dishes such as braided challah bread and matzo ball soup. For many Jewish students on campus, the food is reminiscent of family memories and long-held traditions. However, it is not just the food that connects students to their Friday night comfort zone.

“Setting up Shabbat with Henya reminds me of home,” said Jojo Rubnitz, a member of Chabad’s student executive board.

Students are invited to help prepare the meal’s challah and to share their interpretations of the weekly Torah portion. The Shabbat candles are lit and the traditional blessings are made. Rabbi Matusof takes a moment each meal to have the attendees introduce themselves and answer an ice breaker question, forging connections.  

“People really come because they felt connected. It’s the community, it’s the warmth, it’s the invitation,” said Rabbi Matusof, recounting the observations of a campus visitor who came to Shabbat dinner one night.

The laughter and noise of students describing their weeks echoes off the walls. But always, the discussion begins to quiet as the main meal is brought out to the table, and mouths are more concerned with consumption than conversation.

“Judaism is more than anything else a gastronomical religion,” joked Rabbi Matusof.

Shabbat dinner occurs at the UW-Madison Chabad house every Friday night at 7 p.m and all are welcome to attend. Dinners are free to UW-Madison students, but also open to the public for a small fee.

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