Chabad house hopes to provide a new outlet for the Jewish community in Columbia

Friday, April 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:02 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 14, 2012
The Chabad house serves students kosher lunches and dinners during Passover.

COLUMBIA — Rabbi Avremi Lapine and his wife, Channy Lapine, are taking extra precautions with their kosher kitchen this week.

For the eight days of Passover, which started the evening of April 6, keeping kosher means replacing bread with matzoh and not allowing food to touch surfaces or dishes that have encountered leavened bread.

The Lapines were married just two years ago in January and usually spent other Passovers with parents, so they bought new plates for this year's holiday. They also laid aluminum foil on their kitchen countertops, and they know not to use dishes from the cupboards they labeled "chametz," the Hebrew word for "leaven."

"So now I have a Passover kitchen," Channy Lapine said. "That's why it looks so crazy."

The Lapines are the co-directors of Columbia's first and only Chabad house, a center for college students to embrace and study Judaism. They hosted their first Passover Seder in Columbia on April 6 at the MU Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house.

Avremi Lapine estimated 100 students came to the Friday night Seder. A much smaller group of about 15 students and community members came to the second Seder on Saturday at the Lapines' home.

Five MU students also signed up for the kosher for Passover meal plan at Chabad house, which provides lunch and dinner every day of the season.

In addition to dishes that haven't touched yeasted bread for Passover, a kosher kitchen requires multiple sets of dishes year round to separate meat and dairy products. The diet also restricts the animals that one can eat to those that chew their cud and have split hooves.

Following a kosher diet in Columbia requires some effort. Avremi Lapine travels to Kansas City or St. Louis every two months to pick up a bulk shipment of meat ordered from a kosher co-op, which he then freezes.

But Lapine said he's been impressed with the availability of Passover foods in Columbia, such as matzoh, since he and his wife moved from Brooklyn last year.

Both Avremi and Channy Lapine are from New York City. They were actually next-door neighbors on the same block but didn't meet — and date — until Avremi Lapine's sister introduced them.

Lapine said that even before the two were married, he told her he wanted to dedicate their lives to helping other Jewish people, either with students or in the community.

The rabbi at the Chabad headquarters of Kansas and Missouri talked to the Lapines about starting Columbia's Chabad house in June 2011, and they moved in November.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement — "Chabad" for the branch of Hasidic Judaism, "Lubavitch" for the town where it stems from in Russia — was founded 250 years ago, according to the Chabad website. Chabad emphasizes educational programming, with 4,000 emissary families like the Lapines directing 3,300 institutions worldwide. These include community and campus-based Chabad houses.

Though Chabad is a branch of Orthodox Judaism, Chabad houses at more than 100 college and university campuses nationwide provide services to Conservative and Reform Jewish students, as well.

"We're just Jewish; that's what we're called," Avremi Lapine said. "We might look Orthodox, but we're not. We cater for all Jewish students, no matter what their background is."

Channy Lapine said their motto is: "Labels are for T-shirts."

Eric Kaplan, an MU freshman and outreach chair of the Chabad student organization, studied with a Chabad rabbi in Oklahoma City, where he's from. Kaplan doesn't consider himself Orthodox, though, and echoed Avremi Lapine.

"It's a bad misconception that people get," Kaplan said. "They see this Orthodox rabbi wearing a yarmulke, a black suit with the white shirt [...] He's wearing Orthodox garb, so some people become frightened, and they worry if they go there, he's going to try to make them Orthodox. He's not going to force anyone to do anything. He's just trying to help other Jewish people find their connection with Judaism."

In addition to holiday events, the Chabad house in Columbia hosts Friday night Shabbat dinners for Jewish students to socialize, study the Torah and get a free home-cooked meal. At the start, only four or five students came to Shabbat services, but now the regular turnout is around 10 and 15.

Kaplan has been going to the Shabbat services since the beginning. For him, the Chabad house is a place of healing.

"It's like going to the Student Health Center: You're sick; you walk in; they give you a medication," Kaplan said. Rabbi Lapine "is just being an aid to help me find whatever degree of Judaism I want in my life."

The Lapines have also offered programming through MU Greek organizations. Channy Lapine recently led an educational event for Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi, the MU Jewish sorority, at which she discussed the commandments for a Jewish woman and taught the girls how to make challah, a traditional Jewish egg bread.

Orthodox Jews follow traditional customs, such as not shaking hands with the opposite sex, but most activities at the Chabad house combine genders. When Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi requested an all-female event, though, Channy Lapine took the opportunity to talk about the role of women in Chabad-Lubavitch.

"A lot of the time, girls think (Orthodox Jewish) women don't have a major role," Avremi Lapine said.

The Lubavitch Women's Organization was the first Orthodox Jewish women's organization to emphasize education for women in Torah, rather than fundraising and auxiliary activities, according to the Chabad website.

The Lapines hope to expand the services at Columbia's Chabad house next year by first recruiting more non-Greek students and then tailoring programs to what students want.

"Next year, we plan on going full swing ahead, getting out there and doing things we couldn't do this year," Channy Lapine said.

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