As the mother of five young children, and with hundreds of Jewish students calling her their “mother away from home,” Chana Refson clearly makes a difference.
Born in Montreal, Canada to a family of eight kids, Chana, 30, is the wife, or rebbetzin, of the rabbi of the Rohr Chabad House at the University of Georgia. Together with her husband Michoel, she co-directs the local branch of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
Chabad is an Orthodox sector of Judaism, which teaches Hasidic practices and beliefs. It is the largest Jewish religious organization in the world. The Chabad in Athens is an organization that's devoted to engaging all Jews, no matter their Jewish background or level of enthusiasm, knowledge and understanding of Judaism.
"I’m so happy that I’m here to provide a place where people can come to,” said Chana Refson.
Known as a “home away from home,” Refson cooks and entertains UGA students at least three times a week.
“I cook for students who don’t feel well, are coming to study, celebrating a holiday, or even spending time together,” she said.
Because the Refsons keep strict kosher, dietary laws, they do not get to experience the established Athens food scene. Although Chana loves the beauty and laid-back attitude of the town, she has to create her own food scene in the comfort of her kitchen.
The goal of Chabad at UGA is to fill up their home with students to connect them to their Judaism and celebrate their Jewish roots. Chana claimed that there’s no better feeling than her house being completely full.
Between maintaining an orderly house with a “revolving door” around the kitchen, Chana still balances her family as well.
“Our children are part of what we do. The students and my family become intertwined,” says the mother of children ages 6, 5, 3, 2, and 2 months. Her children are structured and take online classes where they get to meet other children who are also part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
“Students involve themselves in our children and our children involve themselves in our students,” Chana said.
“Chabad has an executive board of UGA students,” said Alyssa Paris. Hand-picked by Chana and Rabbi Michoel.”
“Being on the Chabad board was such a treat. I got to help plan their biggest event, Shabbat 500, which is one Friday night a year when they attempt to bring as many Jewish students together to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath.”
Many students agree that their college experience has been greatly impacted by Chana’s presence in Athens.
“Chana is truly like a mother to me and the other Jewish students here in Athens,” said senior Julia Franklyn. “She’s always there to help whether it be with some chicken soup when I’m sick or just someone to talk to when I need help.“
Franklyn has been going to Chabad regularly for the past three years and like hundreds of students has been influenced by Chana some way during her time in Athens.
“She continues to go above and beyond for her family and her extended family, the Jewish students at UGA,” Franklyn said. “We’re so lucky to have her and have Chabad to be our home away from home.”