By Ben Tinsley
COLLEGE STATION — Manya Lazaroff, co-director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center at Texas A&M University, remembers how a well-timed portion of matzo ball soup essentially saved a student’s life a few years back.
The student, a Chabad regular, had reported being sick on Facebook. This was noticed by a concerned Manya Lazaroff, who decided to prepare some soup and take it over to the student’s living quarters.
“What I didn’t know at the time — what she didn’t tell me until years later — was that she basically … had planned to end her life,” Manya Lazaroff said. “But when I came over with the soup and spent an hour talking to her, it somehow pulled her through.”
Manya Lazaroff helped guide the student to a therapist.
“She told me later, ‘That soup, that company, saved my life,’” she said.
Indeed, helping better the lives of Jewish students is the mission of Rabbi Yossi and Manya Lazaroff. Both they and the students they mentor and counsel refer to the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center as “the Heart of Jewish Aggie Life.”
Rabbi Yossi Lazaroff said when he and his wife first moved to College Station to begin their work, they had no idea the Chabad they established would be as popular as it became.
“There wasn’t much programing going on when we started here,” Rabbi Lazaroff said. “But when we started, it was like the students were thirsty for it.”
It’s an interesting experience being active at a university at which the 500 estimated Jewish students are basically a fraction of the 52,505 student enrollment, the Lazaroffs noted.
Many Texas A&M students here have never met Jews before — and when they finally do, it’s a very momentous occasion for them, explained Texas A&M alumnus Alec Becker.
“They say, ‘You’re a Jew? I’ve never met a Jew in my life. Tell me about it,’” he said.
The Lazaroffs are one of 250 “membership unit” Chabad couples throughout the United States.
Rabbi Yossi Lazaroff’s father, Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, is the current Texas regional director for Texas Friends of Chabad Lubavitch, Inc. and member of the board and executive committee of Agudas Chasidei Chabad.
Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff established Chabad Lubavitch in Texas in 1972 under the direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Rabbi Yossi Lazaroff’s brother, Chaim Lazaroff (or Rabbi Chaim), is program director at Chabad Lubavitch Center, Texas and rabbi-director of Chabad of Uptown in Houston.
Funds for the activities of a Chabad center, incidentally, rely completely and utterly on the area community.
The Lazaroffs don’t receive funding from Lubavitch headquarters. Instead, representatives such as the Lazaroffs do all the fundraising by themselves for day-to-day expenses — and often parents, current and former students help provide funds to keep them going.
It’s an important duty to do so, because many Jewish students at Texas A&M University consider the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center to be a home away from home.
Rabbi Yossi and Manya Lazaroff say they and their children are there to help students relax and find their center. Chabad House is a place to study, eat, or even take a nice nap. It’s warm and pleasant.
In addition to food, the Lazaroffs help coach students on social skills when it is needed.
Alec Becker is a good example, He said he learned social skills while there that helped him gain the confidence to talk to a girl he liked.
“I would definitely attribute my suaveness to coming to Chabad,” he said with a grin.
The Lazaroffs have a neat trick to help students socialize: They put a huge spoon in the women’s bathroom and a fork in the men’s.
Because the spectacle of oversized silverware tended to spark interesting conversations between the males and females who saw them.
The Lazaroffs moved to College Station in June 2007 and their home effectively served as the Chabad from July to October 2007.
“That first day, I heard a student knock on the door and say, ‘I hear we have a Chabad,’” Manya Lazaroff recalled.
That evening so long ago, the couple was joined by a small group of students in their home. By the time Rosh Hashanah rolled around, there were as many as 40 people sharing their table.
October 2007 was a month of changes. The Lazaroffs managed to acquire the 4,000-square-foot center at 201 Live Oak St. as a permanent home and established what now is known as the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student & Community Center at Texas A&M.
The purchase was made possible through a generous grant from the Rohr Family Foundation.
And now? They actively cater to at least 100 students per semester.
The Lazaroffs are willing to do whatever it takes to help students and visitors. If they’re hungry, cookies are almost certainly always available. Or perhaps Manya Lazaroff can make them something to eat.
“I come here for many meals a week,” said Delaney Becker, president of Texas A&M’s Chabad Jewish Student Group. “They supply me with a lot of food.”
Delaney Becker’s brother, Alec Becker, said the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center is a place where students can really let down their guard.
“If you’re a strong man and need a place to cry, there are always some onions here to cut up,” Alec Becker said, laughing.
The Lazaroffs’ oldest son Menachem, 15 is away at Yeshiva, where — in the tradition of his father and grandfather — he is studying to become a fifth generation rabbi.
But their younger children, Lazer, 13; Leibel, 9; and triplets Mussia, Menucha, and Levi, all 5; all act as de facto employees of the Chabad.
“They make sure any student who walks in has something to drink,” Manya Lazaroff said. “If they see that someone has been crying they let us know. … They are sharing their parents with 90 students. Our kids play a pivotal role here.”
Each year, students join Rabbi Yossi on trips to Israel for Birthright to strengthen their Jewish connection to the land of Israel.
Manya Lazaroff said people tend to come and go. But the Chabad tries to help provide those who are there with understanding, counseling and friendship.
The kitchen and dining room (front area) of the Chabad are great places for people to communicate, Manya Lazaroff explained.
“In many homes the food is the epicenter of the home, where you sit and bond and de-stress,” she said. “Once you go into your room, you’re in your own zone. But the kitchen is where the students make their favorite soup. It’s the heartbeat of the home and what they learn is the byproduct of that food. It’s not just a location, it is serving a need.”
Classes on Judaism are held there throughout the semester. There are many classes at the Chabad that integrate the study of classic Jewish texts, national networking opportunities and social programming.
The Lazaroffs said they intend to double the size of the the Rohr Chabad Jewish Center, to include a student lounge and guest suites.