Here are some of the things I (Mendel) learned from the Chabad on Campus Upstate NY Shabbaton at Oneonta, April 1-3 2016. It’s a mix of little things and big things, observations, experiences, lessons and teachings. The Baal Shem Tov taught us to learn lessons in the service of G-d from everything we see or hear, which most certainly includes a Chabad Shabbaton weekend…

(Here’s the link to the list of reasons to go that we posted BEFORE the Shabbaton).

(1) We thought we had a big campus Chabad House at UAlbany, what we call the new, bigger and better Shabbos House – but that’s until we saw the Chabad House in Oneonta! It’s housed in a rehabilitated former church, the older part of which was built in 1888 and the newer school building portion built in 1968. All of this has been transformed into a sprawling Chabad House, and campus Chabad family residence, not yet completely renovated, with endless possibilities. There are staircases going nowhere as in a Fiddler song, hidden rooms and secret passages, a giant organ, a tall bell tower – you name it. It feels like Hogwarts!

(2) The vastness of the building and the height of the dome aside, buildings don’t a Chabad House make. People do it. It’s obvious from our experience there that its the warmth and love and valuing of each individual, the sweat and effort that’s invested by the Shluchim (Chabad family) and students alike that make it happen. The number of doorways upstairs and downstairs and all spaces in between don’t matter anywhere as much as the doorway to one person’s heart.

(3) Speaking of which, it was especially inspiring to realize that one Chabad Shlucha (aka Rebbetzin) drove over four hours to get to and participate at the Shabbaton – with ONE student. Only one student from that campus was able to make this trip, and that Chabad Shlucha left her family for the weekend and made this trip and made it worthwhile. The Rebbe – who saw the individual in the crowd and cherished the infinite value of each and every Jew – would be proud.

(4) “Bear Jew” aka Daniel Nissim HaLevi was the sole student to arrive (he made the trip himself) from a campus way up north near Canada. He wore a hat that said “Bear Jew” and by the time the Shabbaton was over he had a t-shirt that said the same. He was nicknamed thus (probably after the character in the film: “Inglourious Basterds”) for walking around visibly Jewish on a campus with little Jewish life (yet – Chabad just arrived there, and Bear-Jew is their student group president). Instead of taking it the wrong way, he cherished the moniker and proudly refers to himself as Bear-Jew. I shared with him the Rebbe’s teaching about the Hebrew-Yiddish name “Dov-Ber” which shows us that our Judaism shouldn’t be scrawny and timid, but padded and solid like a bear.

(5) Chocolate Challah! In addition to the regular, and very tasty Challah rolls, Fraidy and Co. prepared a Shabbos specialty of theirs: Chocolate Challah – aka a babka of sorts. This was no mere chocolate chips added to a Challah recipe but literally chunks of hearty rich sweet chocolate oozing out of a Challah dough. And it wasn’t dessert mind you, but served with the first course. There were many, many desserts served and prepared and available throughout the Shabbaton. From homemade biscotti/mandelbread to various types of rice-krispy treats, and very sticky sweet cinnamon buns – all homemade at the Chabad. But I think that the Chocolate Challah stands out. It was a surprise, it was different, it was delicious…

(6) All this food made me wonder how Rabbi Meir stays so skinny? What’s his secret? He told me about a Rambam (Maimonides) text that he learned years earlier in Yeshiva about not eating until hungry – and not eating until full either. Somehow he learned this discipline and it works. It might also have to do with his crazy amounts of energy and rushing about, not sitting still for too long, always onto something or someone.

(7) Jewish geography is always fun, and this Shabbaton was no different. We watched in amazement how a student from City College recognized a student on the next couch from RCC and they were wondering how they knew each other – until they discovered that they went to the same Jewish elementary school and then went on to share memories. We were amazed by how many people we knew or had mutual friends with. Here’s a few examples: Annie (an Oneonta student) is from Glens Falls which is 50 minutes north of Albany. We both knew Shirley of blessed memory – a righteous and beloved woman from that city. Lev is a graduating student at Oneonta who lived in Albany until he was eight. He remembers singing Al-Tirah from his Maimonides School days! Lev’s mom was one of the best English teachers at Maimonides, my sisters loved her as a teacher and remember her fondly. And the girl Esther whose grandfather is someone I remember from my own Yeshiva years in Brunoy France… The above-mentioned BearJew shops for Kosher at Price Chopper Colonie (which is where we shop a lot), and his mom lives near here up in Saratoga. A guy named Zach looked familiar, and as it turns out, his family once visited here in the summer months. And Sam? He has a grandmother in Albany whom we know well, and his family has deep roots and lots of family in town here. Binyanim is cousin to UAlbany alum Michael Moshe A. who now lives in Israel but is only a selfie-click away! We only saw Conner (a veteran of Oneonta Chabad, now an alum) twice in the past (two years ago when Albany hosted the regional Shabbaton and earlier this year at the NYC Chabad on Campus Shabbaton) but felt like we’ve known him for a long time when he saw him this weekend visiting Oneonta (he has since graduated and is working on Long Island). People connections are always awesome!

(8) There were two philanthropic couples visiting at the Shabbaton who serve on the international board of Chabad on Campus and are major donors to national projects and campaigns. One of the husbands serves in the leadership of the Chabad on Campus International – and yet told me that this was the very first Chabad on Campus Shabbat dinner he ever attended. Wow! Think about that! Imagine someone that invested and contributing on a major scale even without experiencing our flagship weekly event first hand. Isn’t that impressive?

(9) I learned that Rabbi O. is a superb ping-pong player, but is quite averse to Cards Against Humanity. He taught us an “Aussie, Aussie” sports chant, which some UAlbany students were familiar with from sports games honoring the beloved athlete Peter Hooley of Australia (this year was the last of his great career at UAlbany basketball). And we learned a lot from his more than four introductions of Rabbi Simcha throughout the weekend!

(10) One of the things that Rabbi Simcha shared on Friday Night was how his reluctant start with Tefillin back in his Manchester days helped him reconnect to Judaism, and on Shabbat afternoon he told of a more recent reluctant reaction to a certain controversial painting of Tefillin which still bothers him. The metamorphosis of his reluctance regarding Tefillin is richly telling and insightful – maybe even surprising to those who might not expect that of a religious transformation. At the farbrengen a story was told of a college student ended up accompanying Rabbi Meir and family to a Chabad bungalow colony in the Catskills for a Shabbos, where at a lively farbrengen he committed to do one Mitzvah for every day of the coming year – he chose Tefillin, and is still doing it, regardless of how unlikely daily Tefillin may seem for a cool guy like him.

(11) On Shabbos morning, over coffee in the (high-traffic) lounge area, Rabbi Yossi Gordon shared a simple but powerful story that the Rebbe tells of a Chassid back in the days of the Alter Rebbe (first Rebbe of Chabad). How a person can in each word of prayer “protect and remember” the Oneness of G-d.

(12) Coach Lonnie prayed with us on Friday Night and Sunday morning and was able to say Kaddish for his mother thanks to the Minyan at the Shabbaton. One of his proudest moments was at the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, he marched into the same stadium where Hitler led the 1936 Olympics, together with the Jewish Maccabia tennis athletes. And he had so much Nachas seeing his old beloved white leather couch (fourteen years of football watching put the indents in all the right spots…) being put to good use at Chabad. We shared with Coach Lonnie the special relationship Coach Abe Saks of the Harlem Globetrotters had with the Rebbe (google that, it’s a great story).

(13) No question about it! Meir Rubashkin & Fraidy Rubashkin and Oneonta Chabad went all out (they even got us snow on Sunday in April…), along with their amazing team of students – just to name a few: Missy’s calming welcome, Matt’s constant helping hand, Lauren’s brilliant tshirt slogan, Shelby’s keeping Shabbat meals prepped and served – super ably managing it all, Mitch’s fast grilling, Lev’s friendly presence throughout, Molly’s special touch with the kids, Conner’s familiar face from the last Shabbaton in Albany, could go on and on – but what an amazing Shabbaton in the Chabad House setting closest to Hogwarts, with more delicious food and warm welcome, good cheer and great times, lurking and spilling out from every building wing, secret room and corner!

(14) and once again this weekend made us really proud of our UAlbany students! Our group was engaged, invested, flexible, positive and interested, friendly and outgoing, inclusive and warm. It’s so much fun being with you, doing things together, and also these occasional getaways as a group. You guys really make us proud!

What were your takeaways?