Persistent, driven and tenacious were just a few of the words used to describe Rabbi Avi Richler on Sunday afternoon.
Those qualities helped Richler and the area’s Jewish community come together in celebration of a major milestone year in the making.
The official groundbreaking for the Chabad of Gloucester County Center for Jewish Life was held in Harrison Township in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd. The vision of Richler and his wife, Mina, since they arrived in South Jersey in 2007, the center aims to give local Jews a gathering place for not just worship but education, socialization and much more.
“Ever since we moved here, this has been a labor of love, and this is just one step,” Richler said. “There are more steps ahead. But this is our home. We’ve been wandering as a community from place to place, never having enough space. We finally have a place to set down our roots.
“We got this property four years ago and it’s been a long journey to get to this point. We look forward to what the future brings.”
After moving from Brooklyn to Washington Township, the Richlers started Chabad of Gloucester County to promote Jewish pride and education in an area it was lacking. As the organization has reached out to Jewish families through the years and gained steam, it has outgrown several smaller locations, creating the need for a brand-new, central hub.
The community center, expected to be completed in 18 months, will be 11,500 square feet on 10 acres and include a synagogue, Chabad Hebrew School, youth programs, adult education, senior programs and space for major events like bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings. All of the costs were raised by the organization.
“This is finally a place where we have stability, where we have a home to accommodate the growth,” Richler said. “We’ll have classrooms, we’ll have social activities, we’ll have a sanctuary, we’ll have a library – we’ll have all of these things not just for our community, but for the community at large. A lot of people have questions and a lot of people don’t know about the Jewish faith. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to be an asset for the community.”
For many years, Gloucester County Jews have had to drive a long distance for services or programs. That will no longer be an issue.
“As the rabbi said, they don’t have to jump in the car and drive 45 minutes to Cherry Hill,” said Freeholder Director Robert Damminger, a longtime supporter of the project. “They’ll have their place of worship in Gloucester County, in Harrison Township. We’re glad to have them and it’s a win-win for everybody.”
“It’s fantastic,” added Don Heim, deputy mayor of Harrison Township. “Mullica Hill is such a wonderful place, and to have one more facet just makes the community better. It’s a no-brainer and something we’re all very excited about.”
Although some in town have raised concerns, particularly in the surrounding neighborhoods off Commissioners Road, Heim believes most of the feedback has been positive.
“I think the majority of residents are on board,” he said. “There’s always a minority of residents who are opposed to any sort of development, especially when it’s in their backyard, and that’s understandable. I think it’s incumbent upon us to not only listen but to hear what they’re saying and alleviate some of their fears, and maybe educate them a little bit on some of the things they’re unsure of about the project.”
Mullica Hill’s Melissa Swanson is a lifelong resident of Gloucester County and has been yearning for a community center like this. She and her husband were the first Jewish family the Richler’s met in the area, as they were introduced through Avi’s uncle, Rabbi Yisroel Rapoport.
Swanson had seen others make attempts at similar projects in the past, but there was something different about the Richler’s.
“They are the ones who finally stayed and made a commitment,” she said. “They promised they would do all they could to reach this day. It means the world to finally have this for my daughter and her husband and my grandsons.”
Swanson is excited for all of the different offerings the center will have.
“Prayer is a big part of it, but it will be for social events, it will be for classes and teaching, it will be for socializing and it will be open to the community for all of that,” she said. “There’s going to be a Hebrew school and God willing, lots of bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings.
“This is hopefully just the beginning. There’s a plan in place to expand and add on to the building.”
The Katz Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Cherry Hill is a good model for what the Chabad of Gloucester County Center for Jewish Life can be. Richler knows they aren’t quite in that ballpark yet, but he has proven doubters wrong just to get to this point, so he’s setting the bar high.
“We have 10 acres, so we can eventually fill them all up,” he said with a laugh. “Hopefully one day, that’s what this can be, something on that level. For now, we’re a much smaller community than Cherry Hill, so the structure doesn’t have to be that big. But at least it will exist and it’s something we can be proud of.”