By: Yosef Lemel  | 

Shabbos Programming Returns to Campus

With the return of in-person campus life in late October came the return of the Shabbos experience on both the Wilf and Beren campuses. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant health precautions and policies, many aspects of Shabbos life have been altered from those of years past. 

As stated in YU’s Fall 2020 Plan, the university “encourage[s] all students in University housing to remain on campus for Shabbat and the entire weekend” to “prevent unnecessary exposure to COVID-19” through “student travel off campus.” No specific policies were outlined in the plan to encourage students to stay. However, the Student Organization of Yeshiva (SOY) on the Wilf Campus and the Torah Activities Council (TAC) on the Beren Campus have rolled out incentive programs to promote student participation in on-campus Shabbos programming. 

According to SOY President Akiva Poppers (SSSB ‘22), the overall number of students who sign up for meals — excluding the first week and Thanksgiving weekend — have varied with a low of around 90, a high of around 180 and an estimated average of 150 students. “We have every indication to believe that the Shabbos incentives have consistently boosted weekly turnout,” he said. 

On a Yeshiva University community call on Dec. 8, Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky, the associate dean for men’s undergraduate Torah studies, remarked that while the overall percentage of students on campus is lower than usual, the Wilf Campus is “averaging a larger number of students who are here for Shabbos on campus on any given week” than previous years. TAC Vice President of Shabbat Eliana Feifel (SCW ‘21) told The Commentator that “on average there have been over 100 students that have stayed on [the Beren Campus] for Shabbat.”

Both SOY and TAC have offered free and subsidized Shabbos meals as incentives for students to stay in. Once every three weeks, Beren students have the opportunity to sign up for Shabbos meals free-of-charge. Wilf students who sign up for on-campus meals for two specific weeks in a row are provided with free-of-charge Shabbos programming for the third week. For instance, students who signed up for meals for the Shabbosim of Dec. 4-5 and Dec. 11-12 will be able to sign up for the Shabbos of Dec. 18-19 for free. 

In addition to the meal incentives, SOY has conducted raffles to incentivize on-campus learning during Shabbos. $600 worth of gift cards to Eichler’s — a seforim store based in Brooklyn — were raffled off to Wilf students who learned on-campus during the Shabbos of Dec. 4-5; overall, 79 students participated in the learning program that week.

Eric Lenefsky (YC ‘22), who won a $125 Eichler’s gift card, shared his thoughts with The Commentator. “I think the raffles are definitely a nice addition, but I think what really packs the beis on Shabbos is that everyone is excited to be back on campus, learning and enjoying Shabbos with their friends,” he said.

“It is incredible to see the level of participation, excitement, and gratitude which has emerged from our learning programs,” remarked Poppers. “It is an honor for SOY to be able to run programs which create a strong learning environment on campus, while also placing students in a setting which has COVID protocols in place for their safety and well-being.” 

Students who stay in for on-campus programming must register in advance, noting which specific programs — including shiurim, tisches, and meals — they would like to attend, due to health restrictions mandating capacities on event sizes. Those who would like to attend Shabbos minyanim on the Wilf Campus must sign their names on a separate Google sheets form.

Minyanim take place in various locations and times on the Wilf Campus, including the Morgenstern Hall shul, Rubin Hall shul, Glueck beis medrash and the Heights Lounge, with varying levels of capacity — minyanim in Glueck can accommodate a maximum of 135, while those in the Rubin shul can only fit 28. Some minyanim, including those in the Morgenstern shul and Heights Lounge, allow for female attendance, with mechitzas set up; this is not the case for minyanim in the Rubin shul. As The Commentator previously reported, students in Washington Heights — both men and women — are also able to sign up for minyanim at the Schenk Shul. 

“I have had a very positive experience with YU minyanim both during the week and on Shabbat. There are numerous minyanim times for nearly every tefillah, most of which are accessible to women,” expressed Tamar Yastrab (SCW ‘21). “The women’s section in the Heights Lounge was very poorly set up, and Rabbi Kalinsky happily and promptly responded to feedback from students and set up a better women’s section. In unprecedented circumstances I have felt extremely impressed and grateful for YU's efforts toward making minyanim pleasant and accessible for all students.”

While there are no official YU minyanim on the Beren Campus, students can attend minyanim at the nearby Congregation Talmud Torah Adereth El. In previous years, YU offered Wilf students the opportunity to form a minyan and experience Shabbosim on Beren free-of-charge, while residing at a midtown hotel for the weekend; this service is no longer provided. Instead, Beren students experience a student-led Kabbalas Shabbos in Koch Auditorium followed by the Friday night meal. 

Students can opt to eat meals in official locations designated by the university or take their meals to eat in their apartments, dorm rooms, or floor lounges unsupervised. Official meal locations on the Wilf Campus are the Furman Dining Hall, the Heights Lounge and the Rubin shul, while those on the Beren campus include Yagoda Commons and Kushner Dining Hall. Tables in official locations sit two diners per table — some with and some without plexiglass barriers, depending on the location — while accommodating for social distancing. After forming a queue, students are provided with food for the meal and snacks in a separate bag.

“I find that meals run very smoothly and that students are enjoying their meals and are happy to be with friends,” remarked Avraham Walkenfeld (YC ‘23), a member of the waitstaff on the Wilf Campus. “The waiters are all very careful to make sure that all safety guidelines are followed and that we properly wash our hands and wear gloves and masks.” 

In general, there have been no z’miros at the designated meal locations. According to Rabbi Kalinsky, this is due to COVID-19 restrictions established by University Medical Director Dr. Robert Van Amerongen. On the Shabbos of Chayei Sarah, Nov. 13-14, the restriction was temporarily lifted and students on Wilf sang two z’miros during the meals in the designated meal locations while wearing masks. In the weeks following Nov. 14, however, the no-singing policy in designated meal locations was reimposed. Similarly, singing is limited during davening, even for portions of the service that are traditionally sung, like lecha dodi and El adon, during which students can often be heard lightly humming the tunes of the songs. 

The university has also featured various guests for Shabbos. Guests on the Wilf Campus generally include roshei yeshiva or rabbis in the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary such as Rabbi Baruch Simon, Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, Rabbi Daniel Feldman and Rabbi Menachem Penner. Aside from the Beren Campus Couple, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Jacob and Penina Bernstein, Shabbosim on Beren have featured notable figures such as President Ari Berman, Shoshana Schechter, associate dean for Torah Studies at Stern College for Women, and Dr. Deena Rabinovich, the chair of the Stern Judaic Studies Department.

“Being on campus for Shabbat was a wonderful experience and not just because I hadn’t been away for Shabbat since March! It was so nice to spend Shabbat with my students and see how beautiful Shabbat is on campus, as it’s always been, even during these difficult times,” remarked Schechter on her experience as a Shabbos guest on Beren. “The students followed the protocols which made my husband and I very comfortable being there. We are looking forward to coming back again.”

Shabbos guests on both campuses have delivered shiurim and hosted Q&As and Friday night tisches. Notable programming included a Nov. 13 “Potluck Oneg,” in which Beren students shared quotes and teachings from the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and an over-five-hour discussion in the Rubin shul on Nov. 20 with then-Director of University Housing and Residence Life Jonathan Schwab in which he announced his departure from his position at the university. 

“I anticipated that I would not enjoy Shabbos on campus this semester, but YU surpassed my expectations,” expressed Aharon Traurig (SSSB ‘22). “Shabbos has been a positive experience this semester, despite all the health guidelines we are facing due to the pandemic. I’ve enjoyed getting a chance to see friends on Shabbos and Schwab speaking to us for over five hours about his experiences from his 13 years at YU.”

On a similar note, TAC President Nina Siegel (SCW ‘21) had a positive impression of Shabbos life at YU. “Although the way Shabbos runs is different than other years, I’m so glad that Shabbos on campus is able to bring people together during these crazy times,” she said. 

Eli Saperstein and Elisheva Kohn contributed to this article. 

Photo Caption: Shabbos programming returns to the Wilf and Beren campuses.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University