Tightly packed tables buzz with chatter. Plates and silverware clink. The commotion then subsides as one voice begins to emerge. It is raspy, with rhythm like the candle flames flickering in the corner. The words are Hebrew — a blessing before the wine. It’s a familiar introduction to the weekly Shabbat dinner hosted by Rabbi Chaim Hilel.
This dinner gathering is just an example of one of the many services Hilel provides to the Jewish community as the only rabbi in San Luis Obispo. And he doesn’t even need a synagogue. Working out of his own home, he provides an environment for Jews to grow, spiritually and culturally.
A majority of the guests at dinner are students. Away from home and family, many Jewish students arrive at Cal Poly without their usual sources of heritage. It is this matter of distance that gives Hilel his purpose.
“I’m here to serve as a center for students,” Hilel said. “Being a home away from home.”
Student crowds tally from 50 to 100 every Friday night for Shabbat — a four-course dinner — to kick off the work-free 24-hour period known as the Sabbath. Anyone is welcome.
People squeeze into their chairs around the rows of tables. Phones are kept away. By tradition, technology isn’t handled during this time.
As the second course of soup is passed around, Hilel repeats Hebrew words of friendship and union. It becomes a choir as people join him. Then the clapping starts. Soon it’s a table-beating song. The festive mood brought by this moment lasts throughout the rest of dinner. The delicious bread, rice and chicken meal is followed by a slice of chocolate cake.
Hilel accommodates and coordinates. Between courses, he walks around to talk with students and answer questions. He describes his role as specific to each individual.
Despite the work-free occasion, he finds himself busy. However, he responds with patience as he listens to each individual student openly and kindly.
“Everyone needs something different,” Hilel said.
The beard, white button-up shirt and clear-rimmed glasses are unmistakable. With a yarmulke atop his head and symbolic knotted tassels at his sides called tzitzit, the 32-year-old is an embodiment of his traditions.
While tradition stands firm, he doesn’t hesitate to go beyond it. Apart from the open and weekly Shabbat dinners, another meal is offered by Hilel everyday, and to anyone.
Preparing chicken soup for sick students is a common duty for rabbis in Hilel’s practice. After he moved to San Luis Obispo in 2009, it was a casual service. Jewish students he knew would call for him to deliver them chicken soup.
It became more popular over time and his operation suddenly went viral through a single Facebook post. Hilel gladly accepted the challenge and he now averages two orders per day.
“If I have soup and I’m available, I’ll deliver,” the rabbi said with a smile.
The dinners and soup take tremendous work and storage. For everything to be properly Kosher, the food supplies are ordered in bulk from Los Angeles. Although this costs a considerable amount of money, Hilel funds it all through donations.
Education is another aspect of his service. He teaches a weekly college-level course in Jewish topics through a program known as Sinai Scholars. Students come to his house for discussions about contemporary issues through a Jewish perspective. The students then write personal essays after each session.
Additionally, Hilel and his community try to do one philanthropy event per quarter.
“We’re here to make the world a better place,” Hilel said.
His personal life and his work overlap by nature. To properly provide to the local Jewish community, he must be an example of the community he wishes to serve.
“The difference is more students are now active in their Jewish life,” he said. “Every year it gets a little better.”
Like most of the students he knows, he moved to San Luis Obispo from a faraway place.
That place is Montreal, Canada.
Hilel was born and raised in Montreal with an entirely Jewish early education. Through this immersion, he became fluent in Hebrew and familiar with the work of Chabad, a spiritual Jewish movement focused on outreach. From an early age, Hilel felt inspired to commit his life’s work to Chabad.
“I couldn’t see myself working nine-to-five,” Hilel said.
When he was 18, he traveled to Israel — the birthplace of both his father and his culture — and then returned home to complete his Biblical education. Afterwards, he went to Los Angeles to study and become a rabbi.
Once he was ordained as a rabbi, he was to be stationed wherever place needed more Jewish support. This was how he arrived in San Luis Obispo. Chabad has a historical connection to college campuses, which made Cal Poly the main target.
Since arriving in 2009 with his wife Miki, Hilel has become an integral part of the local Jewish identity. He represents Chabad and coordinates with two of the Jewish student-run groups at Cal Poly as well as with the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi.
As the heart to this Jewish life he also works with administration to make the needs of his students known. Jewish holidays are not known to fall under the usual academic calendar’s scheduled breaks, and this can put pressure on Jewish students. Hilel believes that communication with instructors is essential for students in these situations.
It is Hilel’s entire family that provides this cultural foundation and sets the example to equally foster growth for a much larger, local Jewish community.
For some it may be a weekly dinner, but for others it may indeed be a home away from home.