UT Chabad House provides home away from home

Hannah Plantowsky

Every Friday evening, the UT Chabad House welcomes Jewish students with the scent of homemade challah and matzo ball soup.  

Managed by Rabbi Zev Johnson and Ariela Johnson, the Chabad House is known for the support it gives and hospitality it shows to UT Jewish students. In addition to advice, they also offer various courses on Judaism and prayer services to students. 

In June, the Johnsons will be celebrating their 10th anniversary of managing UT Chabad House. Since they arrived in Austin in 2007, they have increased their popularity amongst students by appealing to multiple facets of Jewish student life. 

Since his own time as a student, Rabbi Zev Johnson has been dreaming of improving and working with UT’s chapter of Chabad House. He said he knew he was destined to come back and be involved with the UT Jewish community.

 “I was just overwhelmed with the beautiful message of this Jewish center open to any one from any background with love and acceptance,” Johnson said. “As a student I started to formulate in my mind, ‘I want to come back here.’”

The foundation mission of Chabad Houses nationwide is to nurture and give love to any Jewish person that comes to their door. Chabad, an acronym for chochmah, binah, and da’at, translates from Hebrew to wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. These core values are what have shaped the Chabad movement since Zev was a student and made it what it is today. 

 “The last leader of the Chabad movement, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, really emphasized the idea to love every Jew,” Ariela Johnson said. “So we really try to make it comfortable for anybody and
everybody here.”

 Zev and Ariela’s mission is to work to maintain and pass down Rebbe’s message of education and acceptance.

 “You come to our doors and we have our values, that are not imposed onto you by any means, but nevertheless we present a smorgasbord of opportunities in Judaism,” Zev Johnson said. “We’re nonjudgmentally offering a plethora of Jewish education for the masses in an accepting, warm and loving environment.”

At the end of every week, the duo hosts a three course Shabbat dinner for the entire Jewish UT community. At Chabad House, Shabbat, the weekly celebration of the Jewish day of rest, gathers crowds of around 50-150 students seeking a home cooked meal and a meaningful evening.

Political communications senior Sophie Degani began becoming attending Chabad House events after attending a Shabbat dinner her freshman year. She has since returned to Chabad for Torah classes, services and a countless number of Friday nights.

 “Something that’s difficult as a college student is really missing that home environment,” Degani said. “Every week you can just come spend time with your friends, there’s kids running around, and there’s delicious home cooked food. It’s a really wonderful way to end the week and get to know other people that you might not have met otherwise.”

 Though things can get hectic managing a home at times, both Zev and Ariela take a lot of pride in their work and their students. 

 “I look around and people are happy celebrating Shabbat,” Ariela Johnson said. “It’s a really beautiful feeling to know that you were able to facilitate that.”