Less than 24 hours after receiving a certificate of occupancy for its new addition, 400 people celebrated the opening of the expanded Chabad House at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
The 34th anniversary dinner on Dec. 13 raised $1.1 million toward the $12 million goal for the 55,000-square-foot expansion.
Honored at the dinner were Rutgers University president Dr. Robert Barchi for his support of Chabad House and Jewish life on campus, and Ronald Rak, president and CEO of St. Peter’s Healthcare System, for his New Brunswick hospital’s donation of a bikur holim room at Chabad House where observant Jews can stay while visiting patients on Shabbat and holidays. Among the many dignitaries who attended was NJ Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
The expansion includes enlarged dining facilities, the first Sephardi synagogue on a public college campus in the nation, and a 72-bed boys’ dormitory. The facility, already the largest Chabad house in the world, has long had a girls’ dormitory.
“It was on Hanukka exactly four years ago that we broke ground on a snowy day in a tent,” recalled Chabad executive director Rabbi Yosef Carlebach.
He said staff and volunteers had been feverishly working the last two weeks to ready the building. The night before the dinner, Carlebach said he did not arrive home until 4 a.m., when he found his wife waiting up to light Hanukka candles with him.
Attesting to the tight schedule, dinner guest Doug Hutt of East Brunswick said he had joined “dozens and dozens” of volunteers in the last three days.
Less than two hours before the dinner, he said, “I was scraping windows that had paint and [manufacturers’] stickers on them,” said Hutt, producing a plastic scraper from his pocket.
Student volunteers led dinner guests on tours of the new building, which still had sections to be completed in the coming weeks.
Ross Leibowitz of Neptune, a dorm resident adviser, showed off spacious dorm rooms and the bikur holim room. “I remember when I first got here, the building was a shell,” said Leibowitz. “Now to see a finished building….”
Jessica Loren of West Windsor, Chabad student president, called the new addition “absolutely amazing” and added, “Now we can do so many more things with more students.”
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Groner, former secretary to the Chabad movement’s late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, addressed Barchi in his dinner remarks.
“It would seem Rutgers University has a special place with Hashem. He chose Rutgers not only in the physical sense, but Rutgers has the z’chus, merit, to accommodate this great Chabad house,” Groner said.
Barchi in turn spoke of the “anchor” that religious organizations such as Chabad can offer students by providing social relationships and a comfortable environment. Jewish institutions on campus also include Rutgers Hillel and the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
Chabad administrator Rabbi Mendy Carlebach cited the special relationship with St. Peter’s hospital, located four blocks away. He praised outreach to the Jewish community, including staff training to increase cultural awareness and diversity.
Yosef Carlebach recalled that in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy he met Rak in a shelter helping to feed and care for those battered by the storm. Rak, he said, “is a man who believes in God and believes in what God wants.”
Rak, whose father died when he was six, said he learned the “value of education in the context of faith” from his mother, who worked various jobs to support him and his sisters.
“It is fitting we celebrate this Chabad house during Hanukka when the Jews revolted when prevented from living their traditions and religion,” he said.