Isabel Hughes/Deleware Online
For nearly 20 years, the little blue house on the edge of the University of Delaware’s Newark campus was students’ home away from home.
On Friday nights, dozens of young men and women would flock to the building for Shabbat dinner, the home-cooked meal a highlight of their week.
Though the single-story, 1,900-square-foot Jewish center wasn’t large, it was always accommodating. If all seats were taken by the time dinner began, late attendees were still welcomed, with one or two students running to grab more chairs for the stragglers.
In part, that’s why the Newark community – and Jews worldwide – were so shocked last year when an arsonist set fire to the South College Avenue Chabad Center. The blaze, reported just before 11:15 p.m. on Aug. 25, 2020, caused about $200,000 worth of damage.
The person or people responsible have not been arrested, but the state fire marshal’s office, in conjunction with the FBI, is still actively investigating.
“This should never happen to a community and a people,” said university senior Julia Hakim. “I was sad and angry at the fact that somebody would target something so close to home.”
In the year since the blaze ripped through the house, that sadness and anger has been replaced with hope and determination. That was on display Monday afternoon as Rabbi Avremel Vogel, head of UD’s Chabad, unveiled renderings for a new building.
Flanked by his wife, Shulie; father, Rabbi Chuni Vogel; University President Dennis Assanis and Kevin Wilson, principal of the architectural company designing the new building, Vogel presented images of a larger, more modern space, complete with a student lounge, café, library and worship center, and 180-person dining room.
The building will also have guest suites, a mikvah – or ritual cleansing bath – study rooms and a kitchenette in the basement, while the Vogels and their children will live in an apartment-style unit on the second floor.
Though it’s unclear whether any of the original blue shingles will be incorporated into the stone and brick building, Chabad, with its planned bay windows and pitched roof, will still feel like the home for which it’s long been known.
“In Judaism, the central point of the Jewish community is the home,” Vogel said Monday. “Buildings and synagogues can be closed down, but if you have the home and you have the family and you have the community, then Jewish life is still going to go on.
“Our (message) is that Judaism is still here and we’re still here for each other.”
‘Miracles have been happening’
The night of Aug. 25, 2020 began uneventfully for Vogel and his family.
They were at their house, located near Chabad, when Vogel received a message from a student shortly before midnight asking if they were OK.
Confused, the rabbi inquired further. That’s when he learned firefighters were at Chabad.
By the time Vogel arrived, the blaze had been extinguished. But the damage was shocking, he told Delaware Online/The News Journal last year.
“I kind of lost myself,” Vogel said. “I don’t think I’ve really lost control of my body like that, like I just started shaking.”
The following days and weeks were a whirlwind.
Even before the state fire marshal’s office officially ruled it arson, officials had told Vogel the fire looked suspicious. Then the FBI was called in to assist.
At the same time, university students were arriving back on campus and it was up in the air whether Chabad’s weekly Shabbat dinners would go on.
While the Vogels had already planned to host the Friday evening meals under a tent outside due to the coronavirus pandemic – coincidentally, the tent arrived a day after the fire occurred – Shulie wasn’t initially sure where she would cook.
But she found a way, and less than two weeks later, the Vogels held a welcome-back-to-school Shabbat.
Through this all, support poured in from near and far.
A GoFundMe campaign created by a group of students quickly raised more than a half-million dollars. A television producer donated $18,000. And an anonymous donor out of Silicon Valley sent in $10,000.
But more than that, the prayers and words of comfort from people across the country and around the world gave the Vogels hope.
“It’s not really something I can quantify,” Vogel said Monday. “It was something completely overwhelming and you would think a year later you’d kind of get used to it. But the miracles have been happening time and time and time again.”
Though Chabad still needs to raise a little over a million dollars for the new building, Shulie said they hope to break ground this fall. Ideally, the new center would open by the end of next year.
In the meantime, the Vogels will continue hosting Shabbat dinner every week –promising to be the home away from home Chabad has always been.
For more information about Chabad’s plans to rebuild, visit rebuildchabadud.com.