A group of people shared a meal together Friday night, partaking in tradition, culture and prayer in a community setting and — maybe unexpectedly — learning a lot about Stan Lee and superheroes.
Attracting a group of approximately 200 Colorado State University students and Fort Collins community members, the 12th annual Shabbat 200 event was held in the Main Ballroom of the Lory Student Center and featured guest speaker Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, bestselling author and chair of Pratt Institute’s Religious Affairs Committee, and guest of honor Joyce McConnell, president of CSU.
“Shabbat is a time at the end of the week to pause, to breathe,” said Melissa Terry, president of Chabad Student Jewish Organization, who helped with marketing, planning and logistics for the event. “All week, we’re human doings. Shabbat is a time to be a human being, to spend time with our family and friends, to take a step back, reflect, breathe and just enjoy life a little bit, to connect with the things that are most important to us. It’s a special event, and it amps you up about life.”
The approximately two hour long event, which was held in memory of former CSU student Sascha Franzel and sponsored by Chabad Jewish Student Organization and co-sponsored by Chabad at CSU, the Associated Students of CSU, the LSC and Coca-Cola, was kicked off by everyone singing “Shalom Aleichem” and then incanting Kiddush, a prayer of consecration and distinction between the days of the week and Shabbat recited over raised cups of wine, or in this case, small cups of grape juice.
The thing that has kept me centered and successful is taking time like this to be with my friends, my family, my community, to center myself and realize that I have a bigger purpose in this world to fill. We all have a bigger purpose in this world to fill.” -Melissa Terry, president, Chabad Student Jewish Organization
After Netilat Yadayim, or washing of the hands, and the blessing for washing the hands, Chabad Student Jewish Organization Vice President Matthew Zidbeck introduced the challah bread on everyone’s bread plates with a joke before Hamotzi, the blessing on bread.
“What do martial arts and challah have in common?” Zidbeck asked. “Jew-dough.”
The four-course meal featured traditional Shabbat staples, such as gefilte fish served with chrain (ground horseradish and beets), various salads and matzah ball soup along with other sides. Dinner consisted of chicken, kugel, a rice dish and roasted vegetables, and different types of rugelach were served for dessert.
Throughout the night, members of Chabad Jewish Student Organization delivered descriptions about each food item, and several speakers spoke to the importance of Shabbat in general.
“I know how difficult it can be to take time out of your week, to take time to nourish yourselves and take care of yourselves,” Terry said. “Especially as a vet student, I understand this. I take anywhere from 22-26 credits, and the thing that has kept me centered and successful is taking time like this to be with my friends, my family, my community, to center myself and realize that I have a bigger purpose in this world to fill. We all have a bigger purpose in this world to fill.”
Prior to McConnell’s speech midway through the night, the assembly joined in singing “Oseh Shalom,” and event host Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik, faculty adviser for Chabad Jewish Student Organization and director of Rohr Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado, delivered an introduction that elicited the response of “Yes, queen” from several audience members.
“President McConnell, in a very short amount of time, has already developed an amazing reputation,” Gorelik said. “And as many of you know, the Jewish community and our community … really struggled right at the beginning of the year with incidents of racism and antisemitism, and it is just so comforting, I know, to the Jewish community, how quickly she stepped up and brought together a group to meet and discuss and really put out new initiatives.”
McConnell, who rescheduled a flight to San Diego to be at the event, called Shabbat 200 a gift and spoke about how energized she was by everyone in attendance and how thankful she was for that.
“I really wanted to be there to share that Shabbat dinner because it included so many of our Jewish students and others, and it was so important to the Jewish community,” McConnell said. “I just wanted to really make myself available to be there and to show my support.”
You are truly extraordinary and make this place very, very special for me. It just feels like home. … One of the things I always say is ‘open heart, open mind,’ and if we can always keep an open heart and an open mind, we can have nights like this together.” -Joyce McConnell, CSU president
She said many people in the room created a feeling of community, inclusion and support she aims to develop at the highest level to make sure every student who attends CSU feels like they belong, they’re included and they’re loved.
“You are truly extraordinary and make this place very, very special for me,” McConnell said. “It just feels like home. And just being here tonight, I love all the talking. I love the chaos. … One of the things I always say is ‘open heart, open mind,’ and if we can always keep an open heart and an open mind, we can have nights like this together.”
Gorelik then introduced Weinstein, who he first met when he was teaching at a school near Pratt Institute, calling him an amazing person.
From the very beginning, Weinstein presented one joke after the other.
“In my line of work, I’m meeting a lot of rabbis,” Weinstein said. “And I have to pretend to like a lot of rabbis. But there is no pretending Rabbi Gorelik is one of my best friends. He is a mentor; he is a brother. It is a bromance. He is the Seth Rogan to my Jonah Hill.”
Weinstein jokingly acknowledged the fact that he and Gorelik are originally from England and Australia respectively.
“I don’t know what’s going on here by the way,” Weinstein said. “You have an Australian rabbi, an English rabbi — the Queen is well-represented tonight.”
But Weinstein wasn’t only at Shabbat 200 to crack jokes.
Weinstein spoke about his life experience with Judaism, saying he didn’t grow up religious, observant or Hasidic, and he was often bullied by other school children during his upbringing in Manchester, England.
To Weinstein, religion was synonymous with spiritual value others needed to help find answers to existential questions that really have no answers, he said.
Weinstein later worked for a number of TV shows and movies after studying film and film history in college, and he became the location manager for the British Film Commission, he said.
After experiencing a major career change, Weinstein became a rabbi and has since appeared on CNN and NPR; was featured in The New York Times, the Miami Herald and The Guardian, among other publications; and is a syndicated columnist for The Jerusalem Post, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Condé Nast and other agencies.
It’s a little-known fact that really all of the superheroes that have captured the imagination of the world for some 70, 80 years were largely the result of Jewish writers and Jewish illustrators.” -Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, Shabbat 200 guest speaker, Religious Affairs Committee chair at Pratt University
Stemming back to a childhood that revolved around comic books and superheroes, Weinstein said he began discussing the synthesis of theology and popular culture in his classes, and he released his book, “Up, Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero,” in 2006. Subsequently, his classes began to grow in size.
In his speech at Shabbat 200, Weinstein used that synthesis to reflect on the history of American superheroes, who created them and how they came to be.
“It’s a little-known fact that really all of the superheroes that have captured the imagination of the world for some 70, 80 years were largely the result of Jewish writers and Jewish illustrators,” Weinstein said. “The question is: Why is the superhero a largely Jewish invention? And the answer is actually quite sad.”
Weinstein said the 1930s were a particularly antisemitic period during which it was difficult for Jewish people to get into the field of arts. Some places wouldn’t even hire Jewish people, and some Ivy League schools would bar the entrance of Jewish people from specific neighborhoods.
But, “the comic book industry was in its infancy; … the door was wide open,” offering opportunity for Jewish writers and illustrators, Weinstein said.
Weinstein said the first superhero to appear in Action Comics #1 in 1938 was Superman, the creation of “two Jews from Cleveland, Ohio” named Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster. The following year, Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, both of whom were Jewish, and the Joker was the invention of Jerry Robinson, a Jewish journalism student.
Captain America was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, both of whom were Jewish.
“Can you imagine these creators who were getting … letters home from their families in the old country?” Weinstein asked. “What a powerful portrayal of wish fulfillment this must’ve been. And, really, it’s impossible to see the superhero as anything other than a Jewish assimilationist archetype.”
Weinstein said it’s interesting these Jewish creators come from dualities in which “they have one name at home, another name in the workplace; they create characters themselves” because it’s something that’s very relatable in that everyone struggles to blend and fit in.
In the 1960s, Weinstein said assimilation was less of an issue, and Stan Lee, who was also Jewish, created a different type of superhero beginning with the Fantastic Four.
One character in the Fantastic Four, the Thing, recites the Shema Yisrael, a powerful Jewish prayer, in one issue, and he pulls out a Star of David necklace from the “4” of the Fantastic Four belt buckle in another issue, Weinstein said.
“And the Thing says in the comics, ‘I figured there’s enough problems in the world without people thinking Jews are all monsters like me,’” Weinstein said.
Lee and Kirby collaborated on The Incredible Hulk, and although the Hulk is a metaphor for many things such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fear of atomic energy, Weinstein said Lee told him over the phone that the Hulk was based on the notion of antisemitism and the Jewish diaspora.
I think it’s very plausible that Stan Lee (and) Jack Kirby would be taking these stories literally form the headlines and really recreating what was happening around the world through their art and through their comic books.” -Simcha Weinstein, Shabbat 200 guest speaker, Religious Affairs Committee chair at Pratt University
“The Hulk’s not a bad guy,” Weinstein said. “He just looks a little different. But because he looks different, he’s feared. He’s misunderstood. And it’s only when he’s bothered that he gets angry. He doesn’t choose to engage, but he’s persecuted.”
And Weinstein jokingly considered Spider-Man “Seinfeld with webbing.”
“Stan Lee told me on the phone he based the guilt of Spider-Man on a notion of post-Holocaust guilt that his generation felt because they can’t change it; they can’t go back,” Weinstein said. “However, with great power comes great responsibility.”
Then Lee and Kirby created X-Men. Weinstein said X-Men #1 begins in Auschwitz concentration camp, and Magneto, an X-Men character and Holocaust survivor, had to help the Nazis kill his own family to stay alive.
Kitty Pryde, another character from X-Men, is depicted as being Jewish, and she says the Kaddish prayer for the deceased in one episode, Weinstein said.
Lee and Kirby collaborated again to create Black Panther in 1966, which Weinstein said parallels what was going on with the Civil Rights Movement around the time when Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and when the second wave of Ethiopian immigration to Israel was underway.
“I think it’s very plausible that Stan Lee (and) Jack Kirby would be taking these stories literally from the headlines and really recreating what was happening around the world through their art and through their comic books,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein concluded his superhero speech by considering the Shabbat 200 event “truly super-heroic” and including one final thought on Jewish values.
“Superhero values are Jewish values, and superhero values are universal values,” Weinstein said. “I think it’s no coincidence that after 9/11, the biggest movie of the year was Spider-Man. America takes solace in popular culture. The Avengers have returned to the box office, and right now, we need them more than ever.”
In a time when antisemitism still finds a place on campus, Gorelik said the Shabbat 200 event is also needed more than ever.
“It’s always been important because it’s important to the Jewish community … to feel like you’re part of a community,” Gorelik said. “And as a minority, that’s not always necessarily going to be the case. So having these events (is) going to give the students a sense of belonging and a feeling of being welcomed.”
It is what defines the Jews that causes antisemitism: their goodness, their guidance, their values, their spirituality, their family … that creates a desire from the negative forces, but it doesn’t define us.” -Rabbi Yerachmiel Gorelik, event host, faculty adviser for Chabad Jewish Student Organization
On the eve of the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, Gorelik said it has been a difficult time for the Jewish community, and antisemitism and racism cannot be ignored and must be fought.
Concurrently, Gorelik said the Jewish identity must not be forgotten, and he used an example from the Diversity Symposium during which someone asked him if Jews are defined by antisemitism.
“It’s a very good question because it seems to be that every time there’s a conversation, that’s where it comes up,” Gorelik said. “And I say no. On the contrary, it is what defines the Jews that causes antisemitism: their goodness, their guidance, their values, their spirituality, their family … that creates a desire from the negative forces, but it doesn’t define us.
Instead, Gorelik said the ability to take any negative situation and turn it into something positive, as well as the ability to always laugh, is what defines Jewish people.
And these two values are part of what Shabbat 200 aimed to inspire from attendees.
“I know how amazing it is having a community and Shabbat dinner every week and what it’s done for my mental health, my wellbeing, my ultimate success in school,” Terry said. “It lights my heart up knowing that what it’s done for me, I can give it to other people. I found that a big piece of my happiness is sharing happiness with other people.”
Julia Rosenwald, a first-year graduate student in the department of soil and crop sciences at CSU, said everything that was discussed throughout the night resonated with her as a Jewish person, and as a Marvel fan, she appreciated Weinstein’s speech.
“I was really involved with Hilel in my undergrad, and this just brought me right back to my other Hilel and Jewish family events,” Rosenwald said. “It’s like an automatic family. You get really comfortable, and I think that’s something that’s very special about Judaism is that it’s so welcoming that anyone can come.”
Abby Ward, a CSU student in the chemistry Ph.D. program, said she was nervous entering the event as someone who is not Jewish and has never been in a Jewish environment, but she felt very welcomed, and experiencing the inclusivity of Shabbat 200 informed her of how she can include people herself.
“I really appreciate the religious aspect of things,” Ward said. “But it was really just like, ‘Can we be superhumans? Can we live as superheroes in a way?’ We all have something in us that, especially as minority populations, it’s really important to understand we’re strong in every sense.”
Micah Goldstein, a Chabad Student Jewish Organization board member and sophomore at CSU studying social work, said he thought Weinstein’s speech was fascinating, funny and interesting, especially since he didn’t know much about the history of how superheroes came to be.
“I think that (having Shabbat) is really important because it’s a way that people who are Jewish but not super Jewish can be involved,” Goldstein said. “It’s that one night a year that someone who’s barely Jewish can come to Shabbat and see the fact that there are Jews here.”
Even if things didn’t really go our way, … remember why you are here and … know that you are exactly where you are supposed to be.” -Melissa Terry, president, Chabad Student Jewish Organization
Chabad Student Jewish Organization offers weekly Shabbat services aside from the annual Shabbat 200 event.
“Whether you came once two years ago and think, ‘Should I show my face again?’ of course you can,” Terry said. “Whether you’re Jewish or not, and you just need something to warm your soul, we’re always here.”
Ultimately, Terry said her hope for Shabbat 200 was that everyone who was present could reflect on their week.
“Even if things didn’t really go our way, … remember why you are here and … know that you are exactly where you are supposed to be,” Terry said. “So, Shabbat Shalom everybody.”
Matt Bailey can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattBailey760.