‘A Jewish home away from home’: Chabad at Pitt opens new Atwood location


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Chabad at Pitt’s new location for gatherings on Atwood Street in South Oakland.

By Alex Saraff, Staff Writer

Chabad at Pitt is a “Jewish home away from home,” according to their website. It gathers hundreds of students on campus to celebrate Jewish tradition, and it just expanded to a new location on campus.

About 200 students gather together on Saturday every week to celebrate Shabbat — the Jewish day of rest. Students enjoy food, sing songs and socialize on this day. Rabbi Shmuli, the mentor of the group, previously hosted Shabbat at his house on Lytton Avenue in Oakland. However, with so many students signing up to attend, Chabad at Pitt has opened a new location for their social events this year. The new Shabbat location is at lots 344 to 346 on Atwood Street.

Sarah Keller, a gap year student who prepares the meals for Shabbat, said fitting 200 students in one house for Shabbat was impractical. 

“By the time COVID restrictions were lifted, [Rabbi Shmuli] would have up to 200 people in his house,” Keller said. “Every single week … it was crazy. It was absolute chaos and it was fun, but it just was not very practical.”

Keller said due to the large number of students attending, the weekly event takes a couple of days to prepare for. 

 “I would shop on Thursday, start cooking Thursday night and on Friday set it up with a team of helpers,” Keller said. “On Friday, they would have a sit down meal and they would bring out to the tables, it was a really fun experience.”

Justin Cohen, a senior economics major, said Chabad is not what he expected out of college, but like Keller he was ultimately grateful for the experience.

“I was talking to somebody about this the other day, and it was like when you come to college as an 18 year old, ‘Do you ever think that you would be hanging out with like, a bunch of old rabbis?’” Cohen said. “My friend and I were both like, ‘No,’ but it’s special because I’ve definitely learned a lot that I didn’t think that I would learn and I’m really grateful for it.”

For Keller, it was vital to have a place where Jewish people can feel comfortable as well as have a support system where they can feel like part of a “family.”

“Having a place to be Jewish was really important to me, and it is for a lot of other students on campus,” Keller said.

Matthew Bederman, a junior computer science major who regularly attends Shabbat, said there was a need for a larger space.

“Part of the location change was capacity — there were just too many people and Rabbi Shmuli found a property on Atwood [this year] that could house about 200 people,” Bederman said.

Cohen said the layout and design of the new place is much nicer and will improve the group’s Shabbat experience.

“Now we’re, like, in a great space that feels a bit more like a sanctuary type space, you know?” Cohen said. “Like, it’s clean, nice floors, nice exposed brick walls and there’s like AC, and it just feels a bit more like a sanctuary.”

Cohen also said members of Chabad, including himself, volunteered to make the new place feel “special.”

“I’d say at least 50 to 60 students throughout, like, the two or three weeks before it opened for Shabbat really got everything started,” Cohen said. “They volunteered to help tear down old drywall, clean everything and help paint … people have been putting in a lot of work to really make it feel like a special space.”

Despite the larger capacity of the new location, Bederman said he also appreciated the remoteness of the original gatherings at Rabbi Shmuli’s home.

“I kind of miss the house a little bit, it’s a nice place to come, far away from cell phones,” Bederman said.

Cohen said he thought the “homey” feel of the earlier gatherings were to prevent “corporate environments” from entering the practice.

“The whole idea is to really have it in people’s homes, or, like, the Rabbi’s home, to give it a very homey feeling,” Cohen said. 

Cohen said he thinks the change is good overall, and he is looking forward to the benefits of a larger space.

“So I could see how people could feel that it’s a bit changed, but sometimes changes have to happen,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot more upsides than downsides when it comes to the new location.”

Keller said she looked forward to the location change due to the added capacity and space.

“Now there’s so much more space to have events, and you have more space to have so many more people,” Keller said. “We are definitely looking forward to having a new location and more opportunities.”

For Bederman, Chabad helps create shared experiences with fellow Jewish students.

“Celebrating Shabbat is important — not necessarily keeping Shabbat because not everyone does that, I still use my phone,” Bederman said. “But the fact that you take a minute and you say a blessing over the line, and you sit together and have a good time and you take a moment to breathe.”