By Angela Roberts
On Friday night, Rabbi Eli Backman and his family opened their home for Jewish students to enjoy a free Shabbat dinner. Although the Backman family hosts Shabbat dinners weekly, their house was particularly crowded this past week.
Chinese cuisine may not be considered exactly typical fare for a Shabbat meal, but the annual Chinese Chabad dinner has been a well-loved tradition among Jewish students at this university for well over a decade.
“The Backmans make delicious food always, and the Chinese dinner is a way to spice things up and add some variety,” said senior mechanical engineering and computer science major Jonathan Rosenberg. “I was proud to not cave in to the fork; I successfully used my chopsticks instead.”
The Backman’s house was filled with the aroma of fried noodles and spices. Throughout the meal, student volunteers hoisting platters piled with walnut chicken and rice marched around the dining room, socializing with the attendees and ensuring they were well fed.
“It’s great, but mostly because I enjoy the company,” said senior history major Ben Sonnenberg.
Chabad takes great pride in the fact that their Shabbat dinners are entirely homemade.
“My wife makes everything,” said Backman. “The noodles, the chicken, the veggies, the rice, the soup.”
Although the rabbi asserts that his wife is the force behind the Shabbat dinners, she is not entirely without help each week.
“People will come help set up tables and cut up vegetables,” said Backman. “Even students will come by to play with the little kids so my wife can get more done. It’s fun for them and good for us. Every student who’s comfortable here is welcome at any time.”
The Backman household was a maze of tables on Friday, all of which were crowded with students. However, Chabad Shabbat dinners were not always so well attended. At first, only a handful of people dined with the Backman family. Backman said the size of the weekly gathering grew gradually.
“There was a snowball effect,” he said. “This was still pre-Facebook, email was still newer then, so a lot of it was word of mouth.”
When Chabad first premiered its now annual Chinese Shabbat Dinner, the Backman family was unsure whether it would be a hit among students.
“My wife enjoys cooking. For her birthday one year, I bought her a wok,” said Backman. “The next year, she was like, ‘why don’t we make a Chinese Shabbat dinner?’ We expected a small crowd, because then we had smaller crowds, and we were overrun. And that’s when we realized, maybe we’re on to something. And so it became our traditional opening of the fall semester.”
No matter the type of food provided, Backman hopes that the Chabad Shabbat dinners will continue to provide a place for students to feel at home.
“Our goal is that when you walk through this door, this is not an institution,” said Backman. “This is friendly, this is warm. No matter who you are, where you’re going, what questions you’re asking, you are welcome at our table. We will treat you all the same because we care and we want to be there for you.”