When UM President Donna E. Shalala steps down at the end of this semester, she’ll be leaving a lasting legacy. Until then, she’s living out many last moments.
One of those lasts is the final Shabbat Shalala this Friday, an annual event held by UM Hillel that is always its largest Shabbat service and dinner of the year.
Shabbat Shalala began six years ago as “Shabbat with President Shalala” until it took on a name of its own. It has since been held annually to attract Jewish students and gather supporters of the Jewish community in celebration of the weekly Shabbat holiday.
“It was a way for us to honor President Shalala and her commitment to growing Jewish life on campus, and it was a way for us to celebrate Shabbat on a bigger scale,” said Robyn Fisher, assistant director at UM Hillel.
Shalala often jokes that the event is “her one time of year to be Jewish.”
“She’s Christian Lebanase – she’s a far cry from being Jewish, but she shares this moment with us so intimately that she shares a part of our family,” Fisher said.
Shalala said this year’s celebration is particularly important because Hillel is being transformed.
“They’re going to have a beautiful facility and great opportunities for our students, so I’m excited,” she said.
With the new Braman Miller Center for Jewish Student Life under construction, Shabbat Shalala will be held in the SAC Ballroom, which means there’s room for more people. About 400 guests are signed up, whereas 70-100 attend a typical weekly Shabbat dinner, according to Fisher.
The event is primarily organized and run by students, but Shabbat Shalala co-chair Jordan Brensilber said she loves that it reaches a larger community.
“A lot of students, faculty and community members come, and I know that even for my friends who aren’t necessarily super involved in Hillel, they always look forward to coming to this event,” she said.
A lot of Jewish students often bring their roommates and friends who aren’t Jewish, Shalala added.
This will be Brensilber’s third time organizing and fourth time attending Shabbat Shalala. She said the night’s theme is gratitude, and Shalala is someone Hillel is thankful for.
“Shalala has done a lot not only for the school in general but also for the Jewish community on campus,” Brensilber said.
Shalala has always been a great partner of Hillel’s, according to Fisher. One year during recruitment for Birthright – a free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish students – Shalala rode a camel on the Green.
“I’m an Arab American, so camels are not new to me, and I spent two years in the Peace Corps in Iran, so I’ve known lots of camels in my life,” Shalala said.
Shalala said that she’s been a supporter of Hillel and other religious organizations because it’s important for students to find their niche on campus, religious or otherwise. “I want to make sure our students find a place where they’re comfortable outside the classroom that makes them feel like they’re at home,” she said.
In addition to the usual candle lighting, services and dinner, Shabbat Shalala will feature a debut performance by a new Jewish a cappella group on campus. They plan to announce their group name that evening.
Hillel has also put together a memory book of photos, with screens looping pictures of Shalala’s involvement. A special gift will be presented to the president Friday as well.
Fisher said that she doesn’t think this final Shabbat Shalala is Hillel’s goodbye to the president.
“Even though President Shalala will be stepping down, I know that she will be there to celebrate our successes as we go forward, especially with the Braman Miller Center,” she said.
Candle lighting begins at 6 p.m. Friday, and services start at 6:45 p.m. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.