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KU Hillel: from Shabbat 150 to Rock Chalk Shabbat

More than 500 people attend KU Hillel’s annual Rock Chalk Shabbat.

Rock Chalk Shabbat is a long-standing tradition at KU Hillel, bringing more than 500 students, alumni and community members to Lawrence, Kansas. 

In its early stages, before Rock Chalk Shabbat became the major event it is today, former KU Hillel executive director Jay Lewis was simply seeking a way to increase Jewish student engagement on KU’s campus and create a Jewish leadership program for students. Created in 2003 by Lewis and a team of eight seniors, the event was called “Shabbat 150” and had a goal of bringing 150 Jewish students together to celebrate Shabbat. 

Lewis and his team exceeded their goal and celebrated Shabbat with 165 Jewish students that year. The Shabbat 150 event led to the creation of KU Hillel’s first student board of 30 students. The next year, the goal was expanded to Shabbat 200. Over the years, the program has continued to evolve and has now grown to become the Rock Chalk Shabbat event KU Hillel students, parents, alumni and supporters look forward to every year. In addition, Rock Chalk Shabbat has become the largest fundraiser hosted by the organization.

“Rock Chalk Shabbat has amazingly evolved into this fundraising event for KU Hillel. While it still serves the purpose of spotlighting our student leaders, bringing the community together and being a celebration of Jewish life at KU, it also raises over $100,000 every year for KU Hillel. It is mind-boggling amazing,” Lewis said.  

When Lewis started the event back in 2003, he said he never intended to create an event like Rock Chalk Shabbat that would become such a tradition to KU Hillel. He simply wanted a way to engage the many Jewish students at KU and make the University of Kansas a destination school for Jewish students.

“To look at the event now, 14 years later, and see it’s still going on as Rock Chalk Shabbat was nothing we ever, ever dreamed of at the time,” Lewis said.

Rock Chalk Shabbat, while unique in its evolution and fundraising efforts, is also special in how it is run. Students work with KU Hillel staff to plan, organize and lead the events of the night from the service to the dinner to the speeches during the program. Lewis said when he was executive director, his favorite part of the event was seeing all the students and staff come together to make the event happen. 

For Lewis, Rock Chalk Shabbat is the perfect embodiment of what KU Hillel believes to be the staff-student partnership. 

“Overall the coolest thing for me, especially the last couple years, was how little I had to do at the event the day of,” Lewis said. “The fact that we grew to have 150 students involved in making the event happen, and that I could just simply show up on Friday afternoon at the Union and everything was in motion and happening because we had such a great group of students was my favorite part.”

KU Hillel Rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator Neal Schuster has worked for KU Hillel for nine years and said the evolution from Shabbat 150 has been a great opportunity for students. He said the growth of the event has provided a spotlight for students to share their own stories with the community, making the event more meaningful for the Jewish community. 

“That’s part of the excitement and fun of it,” Rabbi Schuster said. “It’s really for people to come together and share this service where students have an opportunity to shine. They have an opportunity to share stories, their Hillel stories, and what kind of an impact Hillel has had on them. It’s really a chance for people to connect with this great organization and truly understand the work we are doing.”

Lewis and Rabbi Schuster both also said that the impact of the event on the community is an important thing for KU as a place for Jewish students. Rabbi Schuster said Rock Chalk Shabbat gives students a chance to show how meaningful being involved has been for them, with Lewis adding the size of the event makes it even more impactful.

“To take over the entire student Union in a way where we have 500-plus people gathered together, on a Friday night, celebrating Shabbat together with a student-led service, where students are really running the whole thing is such a powerful statement. I feel like you can certainly be Jewish and proud to go to KU,” Lewis said. 

And while an important event for Jewish students on KU’s campus, as well as for prospective Jewish students seeking a Jewish community in college, the event also serves an important role for the community and alumni. KU alumna and former Hillel student Taly Friedman said she looks forward to Rock Chalk Shabbat every year. As a former student who saw Rock Chalk Shabbat evolve, Friedman now serves on the KU Hillel board and still has a role in Hillel as the event grows.

“I think (Rock Chalk Shabbat) is the best way for the Kansas City (community) and parents of students and current students to come together to celebrate Shabbat and see, feel and hear about the impact that Hillel is having for so many students,” Friedman said. 

Lewis’s original goal of Shabbat 150, and ultimately Rock Chalk Shabbat, was for students to get involved and stay involved with KU Hillel, to become Jewish leaders outside of college, whether through their careers or through celebrating Jewish life with friends on their own. Friedman, along with many other Hillel alumni, show how events like Rock Chalk Shabbat accomplish that goal. 

“Being involved in Hillel on a board level has been a really important part of my post-college life. It’s kept me connected to an organization that made such a difference for me,” Friedman said.

Rock Chalk Shabbat will take place Nov. 3 at the Kansas Union at 6 p.m. The event will celebrate the 15-year legacy of Jay Lewis and celebrate the future of KU Hillel. To learn more about this year’s event, visit www.kuhillel.org/rockchalkshabbat.