For years, the weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life have been a treasured tradition for Jewish students at the University of Delaware – a time to be with friends, enjoy a home-cooked meal and celebrate their faith.
It’s been a rough couple weeks for the Chabad Center, but it will take a lot more than an arsonist to bring an end to the weekly dinners, Rabbi Avremel Vogel said.
“This is who we are. This is our identity, and this is what we're going to do. We're not going to let somebody else dictate how we live our lives,” Vogel said. “If someone wants to take that away from us, I mean, who are we to let that happen? We're not going to roll over. We are going to be here and we're going to celebrate the way we know how to celebrate.”
On Friday, approximately 40 students gathered in the backyard of Vogel’s Indian Road home – which backs up to the Chabad Center’s South College Avenue property – for the first Shabbat dinner of the semester. Shabbat is the Jewish sabbath.
Chabad received a permit for the dinner through the city’s new social gathering law, and students wore masks when not eating and sat in small groups at tables that were set up a safe distance apart.
“This is Shabbat. For many of these students, after a long week – now it's a long week staring at a screen, but it used to be a long week schlepping your backpack from class to class and all the stress – people just look forward to having this in their schedule where they can just sit down to a nice home-cooked meal with family, with all their friends and just be themselves, not be a student, just be themselves,” Vogel said.
After the Aug. 25 fire that destroyed the Chabad Center, he worried that some students might be fearful or want to lay low. The fire, which was ruled arson, sparked fears that someone may be targeting the Jewish community, though investigators have yet to find evidence it was a hate crime and are probing whether it was connected to other recent arsons in Newark.
Vogel said he was pleasantly surprised at how well the students have rallied together.
“There's been a pretty solid 180,” he said. “In the beginning, there was grief and sorrow and for some people even anger, like how could someone do this to us. They’ve flipped the script, and they've decided that this is not going to define us.”
Support continues to pour in from all directions, from neighbors who stopped by to offer their condolences, to other faith leaders offering their help, to people from around the country donating money. A fundraiser set up the day after the fire has garnered more than $500,000 from 9,000 donors. Other fundraisers have been set up by the Islamic Society of Delaware and the St. Thomas More Oratory, the Catholic campus ministry at UD.
Chabad plans to rebuild the center at the same site, only larger. The organization had outgrown its facility and was already thinking about expanding before the fire, Vogel said.
For now, the outdoor dinners will continue as long as the weather allows. The center had already planned to hold many of its events outdoors due to the pandemic. Vogel is also planning events to commemorate the High Holidays.
Ben Shapira, a UD junior who attended Friday night’s dinner with a few friends, described the anger he felt upon learning about the arson.
“It really hurt and made me feel like this is what it’s like to be a Jew. I saw what happened in Pittsburgh and I was very naïve to think it wouldn’t come to my community,” Shapira said, referring to the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “It hit very close to home.”
On Friday, though, he was pleased to see how the Chabad community came together after the fire.
“It makes me very proud,” he said. “Jews are a tight-knit community everywhere.”