Classes at the University of Hartford don’t commence until the first of September, and the Chabad Chevra won’t fire up its welcome grill until a week later. Even in the dog days of August though, things are hopping on this Connecticut campus.
Chabad is moving in.
For the first time since its inception in 2003, the student-supported Chabad center will have its own address, only five houses down from the university’s main buildings. Having its own residence is an important component to the success of Chabad, an organization that is affectionately known as a “home away from home” for hundreds of thousands of Jewish students worldwide.
“If you’re sick or stressed out or need a place to relax, you would normally go home,” explains Renee Sandler. “We don’t have that here, so instead, we go to the rabbi’s house. I hang out with the kids, go shopping with Dalia, and get a chance to take my mind off things.”
Dalia and her husband, Rabbi Yossi Kulek, are the popular directors of the Chabad Chevra, the Chabad outpost at the University of Hartford.
Until now, their events, classes, and Shabbat dinners were based out of various university rooms. But this year, thanks to the generosity of several major donors, a 9,000 square-foot red brick mansion will house all their activities.
A week after the signing, both Kuleks are still in awe at the serendipity of their new acquisition.
“The owners priced their home at 10 percent below market value,” explains Rabbi Kulek, a sure sign of today’s real estate market. “Then we offered a third lower, which the owners countered with an additional $50,000 reduction. They also agreed to provide a ten-year loan with no interest. It was a big miracle.”
The building, built in 1922, was owned by the Archdiocese of Connecticut in the 1940s, when it served as the archbishop’s residence. The American Baptists, who just sold the building to Chabad, purchased it 50 years ago as their headquarters. Now, says Kulek, “they downsized so that we could upsize.”
Upsizing will include a large synagogue, modern kitchen and dining hall, classrooms, and bedrooms. Though a second capital campaign will begin soon, to fund needed renovations, the building will be open, day and night, from the start of the 09-10 scholastic year. The campaign will finance structural improvements as well as a student lounge and media center.
Josh Speter graduated from the university in 2007 with a degree in business administration. He still lives nearby and he and his wife are close friends of the Kuleks.
“Chabad did a lot for me,” he says. “The University of Hartford is a very secular campus, even though 50 percent of the students there are Jewish, so when Rabbi Kulek came, I quickly got involved.”
Very involved. In his freshman year, Speter canvassed the campus, amassing enough student signatures to have Chabad recognized as an official club. He served as treasurer, secretary, vice president, and president of the Chabad Chevra during his tenure at the school. And he got people to come to events, passed out mezuzahs to students who needed them, and helped with shopping, cooking, and babysitting.
“They put me in a leadership role,” he says. “But I was not only able to help others, I really helped myself.”
Even though Chabad activities attracted a significant number of students, the organization operated at a disadvantage because of its lack of a permanent home. Events were constantly being shuttled between different university buildings and rooms and there was a regular confusion as to where and when things were happening.
“This will make a big difference,” believes Speter. “Chabad’s own place will truly be a home for people to go and feel comfortable. There is nowhere else on campus where they can be as relaxed.”
Now that all the papers have been signed and the business of moving in has begun in earnest, Kulek has a chance to truly appreciate all his blessings.
“It is important to recognize that all our momentum was because of the generosity of George Rohr and his family,” insists Kulek. “It was his generosity that inspired David Chase [to help broker the final deal]. It is also amazing that Mr. Rohr kept his commitment from a year ago, despite significant financial pressures in this global recession.”
Sandler, who will be a senior this fall, can’t wait for the new building’s inauguration. She is hoping to introduce more students to Chabad this year and believes that having its own space will make it possible.
“If you’re looking for Jewish life and culture on campus, Chabad is the place to go,” Sandler says. “I wasn’t looking for anything, but I found it. And I love it.”