On a Friday evening, some 50 Yale students huddled around a long, candlelit dinner table. After a portion of the Torah was read, each attendee was asked to share how they see the Divine in their lives. A Jewish student answered first, speaking about his faith. Others cited music or literature; others still, the ceremonial Shabbos dinners they attend like this one.

One attendee, when his turn arrived, sheepishly stood up. “I don’t really believe in a god,” he confessed. The red-bearded rabbi, sitting at the center of the table, smiled. “We’ll ask you again in three hours,” he responded. Others at the table laughed.

On any given weekend, this is the scene inside a refurbished Second Empire-style mansion in New Haven. The group, called Shabtai, is a self-styled Jewish intellectual society, not far from the windowless enclaves that house Yale’s other selective, and sometimes secret, groups.

Shabtai, as the group is called, has become something of an elite ecumenical breeding ground — an “intellectual society,” its leaders call it — where students come together for conversation and community.

Like other Yale societies — think Skull & Bones — the organization’s meetings are invite-only. But unlike other secret groups on campus that meet weekly in century-old “tombs,” Shabtai isn’t clandestine, and its unifying principle is religion: a rabbi is present, prayers are offered and Jewish holy days are observed. Toby Hecht, the group’s director, told me they welcome “all different people of all different faiths”; her husband, Rabbi Shmully Hecht, is one of Shabtai’s co-founders.

I joined them for a Shabbos dinner in late September. Attendees are locked in for the full four-hour meal, starting at 8 p.m., to usher in the Jewish Sabbath. All cellphones are turned off. These meetings are serious, respectful affairs, the rabbi’s humor notwithstanding. But they became even more serious and urgent after a Hamas attack on Israel shook the world, and the group’s mansion provided a safe haven for Jewish students, some of whom became targets of antisemitism on the Ivy League campus.

In the nearly 30 years of Shabtai’s existence, the society has produced a global network of alumni. Much of the society’s activities seem geared toward developing deep respect for religious and ideological pluralism, while also engendering a special reverence for the Jewish people.

But at a time of war, that ethos is being tested — even among its own members.

The disturbing rise of antisemitism on elite U.S. campuses

Society alumni have gone on from the Shabbat table to successful careers in academia, journalism, banking, law and medicine. Others become politicians, like Sen. Cory Booker, one of the group’s founding members. As of late, another non-Jewish alumnus with political ambitions has made waves: presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.

Ramaswamy, a Hindu, first attended a Shabtai event as a law student, at the invitation of a Jewish friend. The free-wheeling format of the meeting — an open discussion of culture and religion that reached late into the night — immediately drew him in. He came back, over and over, until he was formally offered an invitation of membership.

In subsequent years, Ramaswamy and his wife, Apoorva, continued their close involvement and relationship with the society. When Shabtai decided to host satellite events beyond New Haven, the Ramaswamys — then living in Manhattan — offered to host in their apartment. They held discussions with Jed Rubenfeld, a First Amendment scholar married to author Amy Chua, and Floyd Abrams, a constitutional lawyer.

The Hechts became among Ramaswamy’s “closest friends alive,” the presidential candidate told the Deseret News in an interview. And as Ramaswamy pivoted from the private sector to a presidential bid, the Hechts stayed close by — weeks before Ramaswamy launched his candidacy, the Hechts traveled to his Ohio home to offer support.

But until recently, Ramaswamy stayed relatively mum about his involvement with Shabtai, as is the custom. It’s a private organization, one whose member list exists, but is strictly off-limits to anyone whose last name is not “Hecht.” “Our success has been our privacy as an institution, in a world that makes a lot of noise,” Shmully Hecht told me.

After Hamas attacked Israel, however, Ramaswamy had to play defense, trying desperately to ward off critiques that his anti-interventionalist foreign policy is naive, or even anti-Israel. He quickly released a statement after the attack, saying he stands with Israel and that “the U.S. should, too.” His connection to Shabtai became a mark of his self-fashioned bona fides; in a speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition summit last month, he boasted about being the “first Hindu” in Shabtai. “I ended up becoming one of its most involved members,” he said.

This Sept. 9, 2016, photo shows Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. | Beth J. Harpaz, Associated Press

Shabtai predates Ramaswamy’s Yale tenure by nearly two decades. Hecht arrived to New Haven in the fall of 1996, fresh out of a fast-tracked rabbinical school program in Australia. Yale’s other secret societies, at some point or another, had barred Jews from entry, along with a host of other groups — Muslims, Blacks, women, members of the LGBTQ community. Hecht’s idea for an organization was vague, though ambitious: a place where Jewish Yale students, or of any religious stripe, could converge and discuss the great questions of the day. 

Hecht — at age 20, no older than most students — started recruiting potential members. He met Oliver Ben Karp, a half-Black, half-Jewish doctoral candidate in African American studies, at the Yale library. He met Michael Alexander, a “bohemian — probably pot-smoking — poker player,” as Hecht recalls, at a bar. (The underage Hecht “shouldn’t have been there,” Alexander told me, “but because he was dressed as an orthodox, observant Jew, nobody really checked his card.”) Hecht later met a pair of law students, Cory Booker and Noah Feldman, who’d participated in a Jewish organization, the L’Chaim Society, at Oxford.

Booker, now a sitting U.S. senator and a onetime Democratic presidential candidate, brought the “charm and charisma,” Hecht recalled. Feldman, a Harvard law professor who helped draft Iraq’s constitution, brought the “rational.” Karp was the “sociologist,” largely responsible for the group’s open-discussion format. And Alexander, now a professor of religious studies at UC Riverside, was the “renegade radical revolutionary.” Booker was a Baptist, the other three Jewish, though none of them were “particularly religious,” Hecht noted. But what they shared, he said, was a desire to “bring together our collective worlds, and engage in a meaningful conversation — an honest conversation, a no-bars-held conversation — about Judaism, religion, society, America, the world.” 

They started in an apartment building in downtown New Haven. They pushed together a pair of card tables, covered them with a plastic tablecloth, ate Ashkenazi Jewish food and held discussions that lasted hours. The four students would invite friends to come, who’d bring more friends; by the end of the academic year, they had two dozen people crammed into the apartment on Friday nights. Karp had the idea to bring in guest speakers — often Yale professors — who’d speak for a few minutes about their specialty, then discuss and debate it with the students. “They just started bringing people together,” said Toby Hecht, who moved to New Haven a year after the group’s formation to marry Shmully Hecht. “It was that organic and that natural.”

They first called it the “Chai Society,” the Hebrew word for “life,” and later “Eliezer.” Before long, they’d outgrown the apartment, and Hecht secured a donation from Benny Shabtai, an Israeli businessman and philanthropist, to purchase a three-story brownstone nearby. Later, another donation from Shabtai moved the organization into the historic Anderson Mansion, the 19th-century Second Empire-style residence that still houses the group, fit with stained glass windows and marble fireplaces.

All the while, the Hechts tried to strike a careful balance between fostering an intellectual space and a spiritual one. Shmully Hecht says the model draws on elements from both 18th-century French salons and from Alcoholics Anonymous — because of the vulnerable, private setting in which discussions are held.

“Call it Intellectuals Anonymous,” Shmully told me. “Call it Jews Anonymous. Call it Thinkers Anonymous.”

Each semester, the Hechts and the other society members that year select up to 10 students to initiate as new members. Each week, when a guest speaker is announced, the society members invite friends and acquaintances from campus and beyond who’d be particularly interested in the speaker, curating a table that would promote the most lucid conversation possible. At first, the speakers were local — the mayor of New Haven or a professor at Yale. Then the Hechts landed Sen. Richard Blumenthal, then Connecticut’s attorney general. Before long, there was a steady clip of well-known national and even international guests: Jerry Springer, Ehud Barak, Anne Applebaum, Ted Cruz, Richard Edelman, David Brooks, Trish Hall.

Over the course of a semester, 800 students attend the society’s events. “This was a place where you check your differences at the door in search of a meaningful, intellectual, spiritual experience, and more importantly, a respectful debate of different opinions and different ideas,” Toby Hecht said.

Often, the Hechts find speakers themselves. Other times, they rely on members or past speakers to help them recruit. Bob Bookman, a Los Angeles-based film producer, told me he’s introduced a number of people to the Hechts who later attended Shabtai events. “Many of them were sort of skeptical,” Bookman told me. “And I said, ‘You just have to trust me. It’s going to be one of the great evenings of your life.’ And it always has been.”

The driving force behind Shabtai is “pure, unadulterated intellectual curiosity,” Dr. Kenneth Loiselle, a Shabtai member and associate professor of history at Trinity University, told me. “And that’s something that you tend not to find, unfortunately, in a lot of academics, who I think are very much laser-focused on their particular area of research.”

A student at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., walks on campus on Sept. 14, 2009. | Douglas Healey, Associated Press

Ramaswamy’s first introduction to Shabtai came in law school, when a Jewish classmate, Avi Sutton, invited him to a Friday night meal. As Ramaswamy recalls it, Sutton pitched him on the experience: it’d be a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish students, and a wide-ranging conversation would go late into the night. Sutton, now the COO and general counsel at a New York-based banking firm, declined to comment for this story. 

“We had a good enough time that we went back a second time,” Ramaswamy said, and then a third and fourth, and on and on, until Ramaswamy was offered the coveted position of member, one of a handful of students selected each semester.

“My impression was that Vivek was a conservative, and the law school was a very difficult place for conservatives,” Shmully Hecht recalled. “And he felt that Shabtai was a place where he could express views in a world that was, even then, somewhat silencing.”

In the years since leaving Yale, Ramaswamy and his wife, Apoorva — who also attended Shabtai events while studying at Yale’s medical school — have maintained ties to the organization. Ramaswamy said he’s made annual donations to Shabtai, which Hecht confirmed, though neither would disclose the sum total. They’ve hosted events at their home and returned to New Haven to speak. Shmully Hecht said he doesn’t go three or four days without speaking to Ramaswamy — sometimes about politics, but mostly about life.

More recently, the relationship has also become something of a useful shield for Ramaswamy, who’s been hammered by his Republican rivals over his proposed policy toward Israel. His “America First” stance prioritizes homeland security over international policing, and he’s argued for decreasing aid to Israel over the next decade. After the Hamas attack, Ramaswamy demanded that Israel provide a “specific plan of action with clearly defined objectives” before continuing to receive aid from the U.S. Instead of providing weapons or money, the U.S. should offer a “diplomatic Iron Dome,” he said

“They’re not our 51st state,” Ramaswamy has said.

Several of the other Republican candidates have lambasted Ramaswamy’s position. Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, said Ramaswamy knows “nothing about foreign policy.”

After maintaining relative silence over his connection to Shabtai for years, Ramaswamy is now speaking up. He’s held his Shabtai membership up alongside his travels to the Holy Land and his Israeli business partners as a sign of his understanding of the region. He’s called himself one of its “most involved members” and “largest alumni supporters.” When a journalist tried to link Ramaswamy to one of his campaign staffers’ anti-Israel stances, the candidate responded by pointing out his relationship with Shmully Hecht, one of his sources for “advice on Israel.”

The rabbi, however, is much less bullish about his role in Ramaswamy’s policy stances. When the two speak, they discuss “everything from religion to politics, to lifestyle.” 

“But when it comes to America’s relationship with Israel, and the strategic partnership that America has with Israel, Vivek Ramaswamy needs nothing from Shmully Hecht,” the rabbi told me.

Hecht did acknowledge that he’s connected Ramaswamy with a number of individuals in the Israeli community, like Yaakov Amidror, a former major general and national security adviser of Israel.

“My conversations with (Ramaswamy) about Israel are just, ‘keep going,’” Hecht continued. “I don’t even have to put sound bites into his mouth. He doesn’t need me for that. We’re friends.”

When I asked Ramaswamy about his relationship with Shabtai, he touched on all the boilerplate attractions. It’s ecumenical and welcoming. It fosters open inquiry. It’s a haven of faith in a secular society. But there was something else that he hinted at, though he wouldn’t openly acknowledge it: Shabtai taught him how to engage with people he doesn’t agree with.

The fingerprints are all over Ramaswamy’s campaign. Policy aside, he’s made open engagement the hallmark of his campaign’s media strategy, frequently talking with podcasters and pundits on the opposite end of the media spectrum. When a student picketed his campaign rally in New Hampshire, Ramaswamy stopped the event to welcome the protester inside. “Who needs a sign when you can have a voice,” Ramaswamy said.

In recent weeks, when Shmully Hecht told Ramaswamy he may host Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — an independent presidential candidate — at a Shabtai event, Ramaswamy didn’t balk. “That would be great for the students,” Ramaswamy told Hecht.

When I asked if Shabtai helped him develop a respect for others’ opinions, Ramaswamy deflected. “I think that’s part of the reason I was drawn to it in the first place — that’s how I’ve always been wired,” he said. 

A high school classmate, according to a Washington Post report, remembered him as “very direct,” often engaging in mock debates. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Ramaswamy called himself a “contrarian,” later admitting he could’ve been “a little more tactful.” At times throughout the campaign, Ramaswamy has emitted a know-it-all smugness, like at the first GOP debate, when social media dubbed him “the Model U.N. kid.”

Haley, who has real U.N. experience and stood by Ramaswamy’s side in both debates, lost her patience with him more than once. “Every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber,” she eventually said.

Where does that leave Ramaswamy? His campaign, though showing sporadic momentum, has failed to seriously challenge the front-runner, former President Donald Trump, who leads all candidates by a large margin. Is this a battle for the vice-presidential nomination? Is Ramaswamy sticking around for personal gain, perhaps teeing up a future run? Does he really think he can win, or should he drop out and endorse someone with whom he may disagree?

Through his years with Shabtai, Ramaswamy has spent hundreds of hours in dimly-lit rooms with people who believe and think differently than he does, with the explicit goal of open, honest conversation. He’s debated and discussed and compromised, disagreeing in a healthy way that fosters dignity. The stakes are bigger now, admittedly. But he’s shown flashes of it on the campaign trail, like at one stop at the Iowa State Fair, when a self-described pansexual reporter asked him about his views on the LGTBQ+ community.

The clip went viral: Ramaswamy, calm and gracious, enunciating his conservative perspective on gender and sexual orientation, the reporter nodding along.

“I respect that you may have a different opinion, and that’s ok,” Ramaswamy said. “It’s part of what makes this country great — that you and I can be civil and have this conversation.”

The reporter shook his hand. “Thank you very much — I appreciate that.”