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On Monday, Aug. 30, plans were unveiled for a new Chabad Center to be built on a half-acre behind the original building on South College Avenue, which was ravaged by an arson fire on Aug. 25, 2020. Rabbi Chuni Vogel, who founded Chabad in 1987 and is the father of its current leader, Rabbi Avremel Vogel, said that the fire was a God-given mandate to build something bigger and better to serve as a home away from home for UD’s Jewish students. UD President Dennis Assanis (left) attended the event to show his support.
On Monday, Aug. 30, plans were unveiled for a new Chabad Center to be built on a half-acre behind the original building on South College Avenue, which was ravaged by an arson fire on Aug. 25, 2020. Rabbi Chuni Vogel, who founded Chabad in 1987 and is the father of its current leader, Rabbi Avremel Vogel, said that the fire was a God-given mandate to build something bigger and better to serve as a home away from home for the University of Delaware’s Jewish students. UD President Dennis Assanis (left) attended the event to show his support.

Light from darkness

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

New Chabad Center plans unveiled to mark anniversary of fire

There is no such thing as a good tragedy, and a shocking event that rocks a community can never be considered timely.

But to Rabbi Avremel Vogel, there is something symbolic to be found in the Aug. 25, 2020, arson that gutted the Chabad Center for Jewish Life on South College Avenue in Newark, near the University of Delaware campus.

Rabbi Avremel Vogel
Rabbi Avremel Vogel

The day after the fire ravaged the center — a home and community hub for UD students — tents that he had ordered to deal with COVID-19 arrived, and the center was able to continue operating in some capacity.

“You can look at the timing of the whole thing. Not to say that there's ever a good time for a fire, but this community, it's not stopping for anything,” Vogel said. 

Plans for a new $3.6 million center were rolled out Monday, Aug. 30, at a press conference held behind the ravaged “Little Blue House” that was attended by UD President Dennis Assanis, Newark Mayor Jerry Clifton and other state and local officials. The speakers, students and Vogel’s wife, Shulie, and their children, were standing on the half-acre site for the new facility, which will include a student lounge, worship space, commercial kitchen, dining area, library, offices and an apartment on the second floor.

So far, $2 million has been raised for the new building project.

Assanis said he was heartened to see the strength, resilience and support of UD’s Jewish community as well as the UD community as a whole. 

“The loss of the Chabad Center at UD was such a difficult moment for our Jewish students, and for all of us,” Assanis said. “It has long provided a place of respite and renewal for UD’s Jewish students. It has helped our students connect with their peers, grow in their knowledge of their faith and continue to celebrate their heritage and traditions — elements of college life that are absolutely essential to our students’ success. This project is a testament to the strength of the Chabad community — and the entire UD community. The fire was not the end of the story. It was just the beginning.”

Rabbi Chuni Vogel, Vogel’s father and founder of the center in 1987, noted that the one-year anniversary of the fire arrives two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. He said that he sees the intersection of Monday’s construction unveiling and the new year as a calling to begin the year with fresh optimism and faith. 

He then sounded the Shofar, a ram's-horn trumpet used at Rosh Hashanah and other religious ceremonies. It starts with a long sound, then a broken sound, then a long uninterrupted sound of success and victory, he told the crowd. He called the fire “a God-given opportunity” to establish a new Chabad student center that will serve thousands of students in the years to come.

“A greater source of light, mutual respect, tolerance and service to all is really the best answer to acts of hate and darkness,” Chuni Vogel said.

The scope of the physical damage doesn’t hit home until you see it in person. The roof is caved in and charred, the windows are boarded up and the facade is crumbling. “The inside is pretty close to this in terms of damage,” Vogel said.

The loss to students helps to demonstrate the emotional harm done. Senior Alex Beigelman, a senior majoring in civil engineering, remembers the last time he was in the building, having a Shabbat dinner on a typical Friday before everything was shut down due to the pandemic. “When we saw the news that this house burned down, that we would never be able to be back in it, that hit a lot of us very hard,” he said.

Julia Hakim, a senior health behavior science major, wasn’t at school when she received word about the fire. “I got a call, and immediately I texted Shulie and the family to see if everyone was OK, because it was such a shock,” she said.

After an outpouring of sorrow, anger and support on social media, the community rebounded quickly. Jewish students and alumni, as well as the entire UD and Newark communities, rallied around Chabad. Students created a GoFundMe and raised more than $500,000 to support Chabad and launch the rebuild.

Beigelman recalled seeing hundreds of people sharing and reposting articles and statements and asking family members to donate. “Everybody was taking action and putting it out there and making sure that they were doing their part to bring the community together,” he said.

Hakim said the community was able to channel their emotions into something positive. 

“We were all in agreement that it was time to recreate something that had been destroyed,” Hakim said. “And we took that anger for those people who burned down this beautiful home, this home that was a community, and pushed it towards, ‘OK, let's move past this and recreate it into something greater that can house more students.’”

Vogel and his father had a similar experience, and after overcoming the initial horror and leaning on their faith they realized that in some strange way, the fire was meant to happen.

“I would say the first 24 hours we were in a state of shock, dealing with the authorities. And then when the GoFundMe started, it just took off. That's when we thought, yes, this is a sign from above,” Chuni Vogel said. “Something greater is going to happen, and that’s the lesson of life.”

“This rebuild is a continuation,” his son chimed in. “And, obviously, we're going to come out the other side. We're going to come out stronger and better.”

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