What does it take to serve up a lavish Shabbat dinner for 300, every week? How do you keep up the energy to host 300 people every Friday night, while working full time the other six days? How do you manage to raise the funds to sustain such generous hospitality, consistently? These were some of a number of questions everyone wanted to ask Rabbi Aron and Rivky Slonim at last night’s 18th Anniversary Dinner for Chabad of Binghamton.
“We do it because we love to,” says Mrs. Slonim. The couple has been doing this regularly, week after week, with no help from caterers or prepared foods. It’s a family affair—in this case, the family is the Jewish student body at Binghamton. Every Thursday and Friday, students work the Chabad kitchen with the Slonims who have the menu down to the tea, turning out hundreds of home-baked challahs and a delicious dinner that has students coming back for more with new friends, the next Shabbat, and the one after that.
When she walked up to the podium to a standing ovation, Mrs. Slonim, known to all of the 450 guests as Rivky, was clearly at home among adoring family members. And when she invited all those present to raise their glasses and say L’chaim if they recall peeling potatoes at Chabad on campus, setting tables, stacking chairs, building the sukkah, running the Purim Carnival, manning the Lag-B’omer grill, singing the Shabbat melodies . . . the Slonim’s role as surrogate family for students on campus took on a whole new dimension.
Chabad House of Binghamton is all things a Chabad House is expected to be, but its success, in sheer numbers, throws this particular campus Chabad House off the charts. And the numbers could not possibly be what they are were it not for Rabbi Aron and Rivky Slonim’s exceptional gift for reaching out and connecting with students so genuinely.
Monday night’s dinner at the New York Hilton was one of those rare occasions where guests feel privileged rather than obligated. In a reunion that spanned 18 years, the men and women who filled the hall to the last seat were almost entirely Binghamton University alumni (and their spouses) representing every graduating class since 1985. The rest were grateful parents who came to celebrate with and thank the people who provided a dependable, open and loving home for their children during their college years.
In her greetings, Dr. Lois DeFleur, President of Binghamton University, spoke of the “vitality, compassion and community” with which Chabad has enriched Binghamton’s Jewish student body. “Chabad,” she said, “helped extend the learning that takes place at the university, beyond our halls and contributes to the development of the whole person.”
Master of Ceremonies, Marcia Kramer of CBS News, introduced Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, followed by Binghamton alumnus and guest of honor, Bruce Teitelbaum, who served as Chief-of-Staff for former Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. Teitelbaum recalled the warmth and hospitality he enjoyed at Chabad of Binghamton and reflected on the Slonim’s phenomenal success. “Rabbi and Rivky Slonim have demonstrated a set of principles teaching people to look within themselves to become better people.”
Guest of honor Neil Kupferman, a former student president of Chabad and pioneer and founder of Chabad’s famous Purim Carnival—one of the largest events on campus that draws more than 2,000 students–recalled his first hot meal at Chabad and referred to Chabad as “my personal home away from home.” Echoing the sentiments in the hall, he turned to the Slonims and said, “You have enriched our souls and touched our hearts. We are forever indebted to you.”
When they arrived on campus in 1985 to what was then SUNY Binghamton, the Slonims were warned, says Rivky, “that we’d never make a go of it.” In fact, the success of their programs has snowballed beyond anyone’s imagination, making Chabad one of the most dynamic student organizations on any campus. In addition to the wide range of Torah study classes, holiday services and Jewish educational and spiritual programs, Chabad has taken the initiative for various causes generating tremendous interest and participation campus-wide. Awarded the best program of the year (2002) on campus was Chabad’s Mitzvah Marathon, at which thousands of students and faculty signed up to do a mitzvah in memory of those lost on 9/11.
Today, Chabad has its own sports team, a blood drive, hospital visitation services and a host of humanitarian and social aid programs that involve students at every level. It has also sent hundreds of students to Israel through Mayanot–a provider of birthright Israel. A video presentation prepared by one of the students gave guests a rundown of Chabad’s breathtaking scope and the contagious joy that permeates all of its events.
But “some of the things that happen at Chabad of Binghamton, just can’t be described,” said Dr. Phil Ernst, guest of honor whose three children attended Binghamton. He talked of the Slonim’s tireless work, and the tens of thousands of lives they have touched. “How many hundreds of Jewish marriages resulted from the work of Chabad on campus? How many intermarriages were prevented?” he asked. “Chabad of Binghamton is forging a covenant for future generations . . .”
In his remarks, Rabbi Aron Slonim said “every student who walks through the doors of Chabad becomes a member of our extended family, and stays family for many years after. We want to share in their simchas and in their personal life milestones.” Confirming this from personal experience, Dr. Stanley Benzel, a guest of honor with his wife Helene—the parents of two who attended Binghamton—pointed to the Slonim’s love for each student, and how the bonds made with students on campus continue long after the students have graduated and moved on. “You don’t remember someone five or six years later unless they are family to you,” he said.
The Slonims spared no words in expressing their own gratitude–to the university president who has been especially accommodating to Chabad and the needs of Jewish students on campus; to the students and the parents of students who have been supportive of their work all along, to friends and family, and to the young Chabad couple, Rabbi Yitzi and Dina Creeger who have joined them three years ago. But the question, “how do they do it?” seemed to be on everyone’s lips.
It is a question that many ask of Chabad Shluchim who accomplish the impossible. It’s a question that the head of a major Jewish organization, lamenting the paucity of idealistic individuals prepared to sacrifice for the cause, once asked me, incredulously: “Where do the Chabad Shluchim get this passion, and how do they keep at it for so long?”
For all who were paying attention, the answer came at the beginning of the evening in Rivky’s opening greetings and in Rabbi Slonim’s poignant comments. With barely contained emotion they expressed profound gratitude to the Rebbe for the opportunity he gave them in this mission. And each maintained that it is the Rebbe’s inspiration and his blessing that continues to sustain them, day by day, in all of their work. “We Chasidim,” said Rivky, “know with every fiber of our being, that everything that happens at Chabad of Binghamton is directly a result of the Rebbe’s blessings and inspiration.”