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UD community celebrates Chabad student center groundbreaking

The University of Delaware’s Jewish student community will have a place to gather again by next fall.

Just over 2 years ago, the Chabad at UD student center was damaged beyond repair in an act of arson. Although it was never confirmed to be anti-semitism and the investigation into the fire is still ongoing, but Rabbi Avermel Vogel says they are moving on - rebuilding, physically and spiritually.

“We're just going to show whoever it was that you can't knock us down," he said. "You’re going to try to, and we're going to come back stronger, and come back better for it.”

On Sunday, the UD community celebrated the groundbreaking of a new center under construction. At 12,000 sq. ft., the new Chabad Center will be 8 times bigger than the previous “Little Blue House.” A student lounge, study rooms, sanctuary and library will make students feel comfortable and welcome, and a commercial kitchen and dining room big enough to fit over 180 people leaves room to grow.

Vogel and his wife Shulie have been leading the Jewish student community at UD for about six years. Weekly Shabbat dinners on Friday grew from 30 to 40 kids to now an average of 140 students.

“The idea is for it to be grassroots," Vogel said. "We have learned, if you've been here versus being to like a community center, one is more institutional and students aren't really looking for institutions. They've had enough of that institutional Judaism or anything. They just want to have a place where they're comfortable. And for that, we don't want to come and be like, ‘this is the programming, take it or leave it.’ It's more or less like, ‘we're here. We're inviting you to join our family. This is what we're doing. You want to do other stuff? Let's make it happen.’”

UD President Dennis Assanis says the university will continue to make it clear to its student body that any kind of hatred or injustice is condemned.

“And not just against the Jewish community, against anybody. We believe in the diversity of ideas of faith that everybody, every one of our students brings, we celebrate that and so anything that tries to go against that we condemn, and we absolutely stand united, and it shows with the success of this project, and the energy that so many people have put behind it.”

What started as a $2.5 million project has inflated to $4.5 million, and around $1.5 million is still needed. A GoFundMe campaign aimed to raise $2000 after the old center was set ablaze in August 2020, but ended up raising over $560,000 from more than 10,000 people worldwide.

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer says Rabbi Chuni Vogel, Avermel Vogel's father, had an incredible vision for the entire Jewish community.

"I was a kid in Wilmington, whose parents brought me Rabbi Vogel's house," he said. "I think it was in first weeks that he came to Delaware. What we know now is he had incredible vision. Not a vision for himself and his family, but a vision for all of us, for what we could be, for what our community, what the city of Wilmington could be, for what this campus could be — bigger and better. Now, even for what Sussex County and the beach could do, and how we could find a greater spiritual self individually and as a community."

Donations for the student center's construction can be made at rebuildchabadud.com.

The on-air story includes clips of Moishe Shur, Shulie Vogel's father, performing the Shehecheyanu prayer, which is reserved for special and joyous occasions. The prayer is said to express gratitude to God for new experiences and possessions.

Rachel Sawicki is Delaware Public Media's New Castle County Reporter. They are non-binary and use they/them pronouns.