Charles Summers

For Mitzpeh


A portrait of the Rebbe above the fireplace in the Backmans’ living room. (Charles Summers/Mitzpeh)

In the early days of this university’s Chabad, Rabbi Eli Backman would take a Torah scroll and walk around campus with a few others, knocking on doors to bring people out to dance on Simchat Torah, a holiday that celebrates the completion of the Torah reading cycle. It was about 20 years ago when he first had the idea of gathering a group to dance outside Denton Hall.

“First we were going to dance around the circle, then we would leave, and everyone would go their own merry way,” said Backman. “But as we started to walk home, they walked with us – it turned into a spontaneous parade. About 25 people maybe.”

Within a few decades, this tradition grew into a parade that is now a hallmark of Jewish life on campus.

“This university’s Jewish community was so different than it is today,” Backman said. “We could not have seen this happening. We couldn’t have planned for so many people two decades ago because we couldn’t foresee this.”

For this year’s Simchat Torah, Backman decided to move most of the post-parade festivities outside to limit overcrowding and exercise caution in light of COVID-19. Tables stacked with piping hot fries, palmiers and falafel were set up in the middle of the road for the students when they arrived at the Chabad house on Hopkins Avenue, then closed off to oncoming traffic.

“I feel like it’s really special to be able to celebrate Simchat Torah with so many people,” said Esther Feron, a freshman environmental science and policy major. “As a young Jewish person it can be kind of isolating, the transition to college away from your home community, but for me, I had never seen that many people celebrating Simchat Torah and it made me feel super comfortable early on with the Jewish community here.”

Eric Stearns, a freshman electrical engineering major, looks back on the parade as a personal turning point. “This parade is when I realized just how significant the Jewish population at UMD was,” he said.

This year’s parade, which boasted about seven hundred people at its peak, was a stark contrast to its precursor, which was watered down into near-nonexistence during the pandemic.

“In 2020, only the Backmans and about four students showed up, but we still did the whole parade route to Chabad,” Judah Lesser, a senior computer science major, recalled.

Now that the holidays are over, Chabad is preparing for the rest of the year. Along with regular Shabbat dinner and lunch, there are many other events and learning opportunities available.

This semester, Chabad has organized lessons on the fundamental discussions of Judaism, the Tanya, and many other topics. Many of these classes last from six to eight weeks, and students receive a stipend when they are completed.

On North Campus, Backman has been making an effort to reach out to freshmen who may be less inclined to walk the extra mile to Chabad. He spoke about how he wants to begin weekly events in Cumberland Hall, and possibly run classes for north campus students.

“The thing about a college campus is that it turns over a quarter of your community each year, so we have to always be out there connecting and keeping things going,” Backman said.

Backman has been active on campus since 1995, when he opened the Chabad, but he still sees growth opportunities. In discussing the organization over the years, he reflected on what he wants it to represent for this university’s Jewish community:

“Chabad should be a known name as a place where you can have a good, fun, and real connection to your Judaism.”


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