By Bryan Schwartzman, Chabad.edu
Photos: Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Elias Benarroach, 26, grew up with a strong connection to Judaism and Jewish life in the tight-knit community of Caracas, Venezuela. The software engineer said that he lost that feeling at the age of 13, when his family immigrated to the United States and settled in south Florida.
He rediscovered his love of Judaism soon after arriving at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Two days after coming to campus, he received an invitation to a Shabbat meal at the Chabad center and home of Rabbi Berl and Chanie Goldman. From the moment he walked inside, Benarroach said he felt as if he’d found his second home.
The only problem—if you could call it that—recalled the 2010 graduate, was overcrowding: Hosting programs, the Goldmans would often run out of chairs and space. Larger events, such as High Holiday services or Passover seders, had to be held in a permanent tent outside the Chabad center.
Didn’t it ever rain?
“It’s Florida, of course, it did!” replied Benarroach. “But we managed.”
The Gainesville community won’t have to manage anymore.
On Feb. 9, some 450 people gathered for the official dedication and opening of Chabad at U.F.’s new $4.8 million, 23,000-square-foot state-of-the-art building. The multifaceted center was built to cater to a wide range of student needs and comes complete with a lounge, fitness room, laundry facilities, synagogue, and full kosher dining center where lunch and dinner will be served. In addition, a rabbi will be on site around the clock to assist students.
A State-of-the-Art Center in Every Way
And in a nod to environmental consciousness, the facility was designed to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.
The new building—The Tabacinic Campus and Marilyn Kapner Levin Center for Jewish Life and Learning—is named in memory of Menachem Mendel and Sheindel Tabacinic, and Shmuel and Sarah Rohr, dedicated to them by their children, Moshe and Lilian Tabacinic.
The Levin Center is named in memory of Frederic G. Levin‘s wife and dedicated by their family, who are benefactors of the College of Law at the University of Florida.
Among many other supporters was local software maven, spiritual author and 1971 University of Florida graduate Michael A. Singer, who dedicated the Abraham Synagogue and Hall.
Numerous local leaders and politicians attended the opening, including U.S. Congressman Ted Yoho, who represents Florida’s 3rd Congressional District. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida sent personal video greetings that warmed the crowd.
Those who spoke included Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, and chairman of Chabad on Campus International Foundation; University of Florida President Bernard Machen; university senior Erica Freeman, who told the crowd that she really didn’t find her place at school until she found Chabad; and the Goldmans’ 10-year-old daughter, Rochel, who introduced herself as a “proud shlucha [emissary] … born into the job.”
“This is truly a great day for all of us, but now my siblings and I are not going to be able to say, ‘Tatty, what’s with that new building that you always dream about?’ Every time we said that, he said, ‘It’s coming along, it’s coming along.’ Tatty, we were never worried, but boy am I happy that it’s finished!”
And then she told a story, about how every good deed counts and how it’s impossible to know the far-reaching effects of that good deed.
“A young rabbi in a college town once kvetched to the Rebbe that he doesn’t know how he will get in touch with all 7,000 Jewish students on his campus,” she began. “To which the Rebbe replied: ‘You must reach seven. Then each of them will reach seven, and each of them will reach seven, and on and on and on.’
“That’s how my parents began here, first a small house on Seventh Place, then a bigger house on Fifth Avenue, then a tent and trailers, and finally, this beautiful building. But all of this only happened with all of you—our friends, supporters, alumni, current students, parents, family and community of Gainesville.”
Moshe Tabacinic, Levin, Singer and Machen joined Kotlarsky in snipping the bright blue-and-orange ribbon officially welcoming folks into the center on a day on the southeast U.S. coast that was far nicer than the weather up north.
Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International Foundation, was present at the event and has advised many emissaries, including the Goldmans, on handling the growth of Chabad centers and student populations.
He emphasized that “Chabad on Campus works to meet the needs of Jewish students, wherever they are. And they certainly are here in Florida, where our existing center just became bigger and better, with an expansive new building they can call a second home and one that should serve them well in so many different ways.”
Young People in Droves
Goldman pointed out that, when it comes to construction projects, people often quote from the 1989 American fantasy-drama film “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.”
Yet the rabbi stated that in this case, the opposite was true. “They came, so we had to build it.”
It’s not hard to see why: Between 6,000 and 8,000 Jewish students attend the University of Florida, the largest Jewish population of any public university in the United States.
In addition, the University of Central Florida in Orlando, about an hour-and-a-half from Gainesville, has the third-largest Jewish population of any public university. With Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties accounting for two of the top 10 Jewish populations in the country, it’s clear that the Sunshine State isn’t just for seniors and snowbirds anymore.
The Goldmans have seen an exponential growth in Jewish life on campus since they first arrived in 2000. Since that time they have held programs in tents, trailers and temporary buildings. Their home has often been overcrowded with guests. While Goldman said he is satisfied the work is completed, he has no plans to rest on his laurels.
“Building a building is easy. But we have to ask the question every day, why isn’t it full?” he said.
“Our main purpose here in Gainesville,” the rabbi added, “is to provide a safe haven for Jewish life and learning for the students and the Gainesville community. We believe every person, regardless of observance or affiliation, should have a place where they feel comfortable to grow, physically and spiritually.”
Chabad at UF video presentation: