One day with Rabbi Blum from Chabad Columbia on the first Shabbat after Chabad Poway shooting

It’s barely past lunchtime on Friday and already four big tables are all set for the Sabbath dinner at Chabad, the student and community organization for Jewish life at Columbia University. On the opposite side of the first floor, one can hear the clinking of a computer keyboard and the ringing of cellphones. Rabbi Yonah Blum, the head of the Columbia Chabad House, twisting his long beard with his fingers, is absorbed on his computer.  He has a speech to write.

Today is the first Shabbat a week after the Poway attack, where a man opened fire in a synagogue of the Chabad House near San Diego, leaving one woman dead. In a few hours, Chabad will be hosting a vigil on campus to light candles and commemorate victims of Anti-Semitism. The other sponsors include the University Chaplain, the General Studies Student Council, and a group called Students Supporting Israel.  For Blum, it’s a teaching moment.

“God has his reasons for things to happen,” Blum said as he was thinking through his message. “But one thing is for sure, these people didn’t die just so we have an opportunity to mourn. One step backward should mean 10 steps forward. When something negative like this happens, there must be an emphasis for us to transform this into something more positive.”

The Rabbi’s words echo with the terms used in his bio on Chabad’s website: “idealism, positivism, and genuine love of his fellows.” In light with Chabad’s vision, he believes that the response to antisemitism should be to spread the word to Jewish communities on campus, instruct them to be more Jewish, not to be afraid of wearing Jewish symbols, such as a Jewish star or a kippa.

“Hiding from our religion and spirituality is not the response,” said Blum. “We have to act as ambassadors to light, hope, and godliness.” Even though he says that at Chabad, they are “not really into vigils,” he decided to organize the gathering anyway, most importantly to try to communicate a “call of action.”

As Blum prints his speech, his wife Keren, one of his daughters Chana and an undergraduate student member of Chabad sit in the living room to listen to him and give him feedback. The Chabad house functions as a proper family home where visitors are welcomed to learn and socialize around Judaism. “Please listen to the whole thing before commenting,” Blum says.

His right hand in his pocket, the other holding his script, Blum starts to read off with a vigorous voice. Barely a minute into his speech, his wife snaps her fingers above her head: “That’s the sentence you should start with!” she says. “Those two sentences. They are going to grab the audience.”

As the rehearsal goes on, Keren acts as a severe editor and doesn’t let go of an idea until it’s perfectly reshaped into a clear message. She leads her husband from abstract ideas to direct injunctions.

“What does it mean to add light to your Friday night?” she asks the Rabbi without leaving him the time to reply. “You have to sit with community, sit with your neighbors, care enough to listen to them instead of talking about them.”

Keren Blum, Rabbi Blum’s wife, edits his speech for the vigil held on campus. by Eleonore Voisard

As Keren takes a pen to amend the Rabbi’s draft, he thanks her. “You’re so talented Keren, you should do this speech.” Keren winks, waves her hand over her head in slow motion to express her detachment and turns back in the direction of the kitchen. There’s still a vegetable soup and challah bread in the making for tonight’s Shabbat dinner.

The rest of the Rabbi’s day is spent printing out documents for the vigil, such as letters from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Columbia University faculty staff. With another Chabad member, he also folds flowery cardboard cases containing tea lights, matches, and a Shabbat prayer to hand out on campus for students to do “Mitzvah.” Songs chanted by the Rabbi’s three daughters resonate from the kitchen on the top floor down to the living room.

Keren Blum takes challah bread out of the oven. In Ashkenazi tradition, it’s custom to bake key-shaped challos to enjoy on the Shabbat after Passover. By Eleonore Voisard

Once everything is printed and ready, Blum picks up his hat from the fireplace behind his desk. On the way to campus, he and his daughter Shoshana buy some matches for the candle lighting. A few people are already gathered in the lobby of Earl Hall when they arrive. Students at Columbia, alumni or faculty members wait for the beginning of the ceremony in silence.  Blum sets up the candles on a rectangular table in the corner of the lobby. As he prepares the ceremony, a student from South Korea comes to him and expresses “solidarity with my Jewish friends.”

At 6:30, the vigil starts, right in time to make sure to light the candles before the beginning of Shabbat. Ian Rottenberg from the Office of the University Chaplain welcomes the growing crowd of about 50 people. “I know that it is good, in the face of violence, in the face of antisemitism to not be alone, but to gather and to stand in solidarity from our different traditions, together,” he says before reading Governor Cuomo’s letter to the audience.

One after the other, Columbia students, including a sophomore whose family attends the Poway Chabad, as well as, Columbia professors and faculty members share words of solidarity, equality and hope. The crowd is emotional, but revitalized by the positive speech.

Columbia student from the Chabad Poway community at the vigil. By Eleonore Voisard

“I want to challenge your idea of a regular Friday night,” says Blum to the audience. “To think about what was shared today, and transform tonight into just not any Friday night, but a Friday night of love, light and inspiration. Join communities, sit together, instead of talking about people, sit and talk to people.”

Rabbi Blum addresses the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

At the end of the ceremony, Rabbi Blum invites the crowd to light the candles, “to bring peace in the home and bring peace in the world.” He also invites everyone to join his family for Shabbat dinner, as an echo to his call to sit with and listen to people.

Candle lighting and prayers at the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

Candle lighting and prayers at the vigil in response to the Poway attack. By Eleonore Voisard

Back at the Chabad house, guests start to arrive and chat in the dining hall. On the other side of the floor, one of the Rabbi’s daughters plays chess with a guest from her sister’s high school. Just next to them, Blum and a fellow member of Chabad recite their prayers in front of Torah Ark, their eyes closed. Apparently not bothered by the ongoing conversations surrounding them, they seem to be in an elevated state.

The call of the Rabbi draws the crowd to their respective seats. Presiding over the large oval-shaped table at the center of the dining room, Blum opens the Kiddush with a few words honoring Lorie Gilbert-Kaye, the woman who died as she shielded the Poway rabbi from  the shooter. Then, flanked by his two sons Zaly and Gavy, he pours wine into his cup up until it overflows, and carries it to his lips.

As the guests enjoy the challah bread, Blum speaks about the weekly portion of the Torah, which recalls the death of Aaron’s sons while bringing a sacrifice in the ancient Jewish temple. Although he had issued an invitation to all at the vigil, the guests at dinner were mostly Jewish Columbia students who seemed to enjoy his Biblical references.

The rabbi said that there were no coincidences in life and death. “The fact that this portion of the Torah comes after someone entering a shul (synagogue) and firing on people has a reason, the name itself is striking. The lesson we can learn is that we can be upset about all of this, but we shouldn’t be upset in silence. We have to speak up, raise our voice, put our fist on the table so that antisemitism does not exist anymore.”

The dinner goes on, interrupted sometimes by chants launched by the Rabbi and carried out by the rest of the crowd. As it gets late into the night, some of the guests start to leave. Some students from Chabad remain at the table drinking wine and debating how to reconcile religious practice and belief with modernity. With his guests still at the table, Blum stands up, and goes to the nearby sofa to lay down. A few minutes later, he seems to have fallen asleep, soothed by the background noise of voices of these students, who can call this place home.