I almost missed the entrance to 353 Bowery. A narrow door sandwiched between a large 7/11 and another storefront gives pedestrians no clue about what’s happening on the inside.
One flight up, daylight pours in from floor-to-ceiling glass walls illuminating state-of-the art spaces in smart, minimalist design where students and alumni-turned-staff are busy making things happen. On this Monday in February there’s a buzz in the air. Plans for Chabad’s 15-year milestone event are in high gear.
Matt Glick, who graduated from NYU with a degree in history and economics, and Jasmine Einalhori, a hospitality and tourism major, now Culinary Manager at Chabad House Bowery, are kicking around branding ideas on a whiteboard.
“You don’t have to be perfect to lead—we want students to hear that message,” Matt, who eventually returned to become COO of Chabad House Bowery, explains.
“It’s about being a part of something that benefits me in the way that it empowers me to help others. Chabad is life!” says Jasmine, who is laying the groundwork for a new Glatt Kosher restaurant she’ll open in the area with Chabad House Bowery.
“It’s about we-hood,” the rabbi, Dov Yona Korn, weighs in emphatically. “We need to hone in on the Rebbe’s revolutionary leadership. He took imperfect people and made them the most influential leaders in the world. And we want students to know that they can step up and be leaders, and have impact.”
Impact is what 1000 men and women celebrated at the Bowery’s landmark Capitale building on March 6. Dubbed “Miracle on the Bowery,” the fundraiser drew students, parents and alumni, some who made the trip from London, Italy, France and Canada in support of Chabad House Bowery. By night’s end students, alumni and parents kicked in, contributing to Chabad House Bowery’s annual $2million-plus budget through “Student’s Give Back” “Dreamers Club” and “Miracle Makers”—each geared to different tiers of donors.
I asked one dad who flew in from LA for this event why it was so important to him. “Because my son was a student at NYU, and Chabad kept him connected.” Another couple, Eliette and Eric Bentolila from Engelwood, NJ, whose son Stephen is an arts and science major at NYU, were there for the same reason. “When he doesn’t come home for the weekend, we’re relieved because we know that he’s with Chabad.”
For many parents, it’s as simple as that. Sending a child off to college can be unnerving—especially in the big city, especially in this once urban bohemian capital where there yet linger traces of famous countercultural movements born here. So having the Chabad family on campus for their children is comforting. But Rabbi Korn and his wife Sarah—former Deadheads who talk about “deflating the social hierarchy” and getting young people to “lead, dream and partner with us in this revolution,” clearly aim for much more. They’ve turned the tables so that students take responsibility: for themselves, their peers, their community.
Rafi Haramati graduated with a degree in finance and statistics, and is now working at Chabad House Bowery. “There are a lot of students here who’d be content with being a Jewish kid on campus, but Chabad gets them to create a community and be a part of it. Chabad empowered me to do things creatively, to lead.” It’s the kind of opportunity “that will stay with me and make a difference in my future.”
Capitale’s hall was packed tight. As Andy Statman, the world famous bluegrass/klezmer clarinetist and mandolinist performed, names of students, alumni and supporters flashed on an overhead screen. Headsets were handed out, and a video by students of students sharing their experiences of leadership challenges and Jewish engagement opportunities they found at Chabad House Bowery, played.
“Miracle on the Bowery” followed earlier student-led capital campaigns: “Make Your Mark” and “It Ain’t Over Till the Rabbi Sings,” fueled financing for the purchase and renovation of Chabad’s Bowery center, offering students to test their acquired academic skills and exercise their creative talent and diverse skills towards building a dynamic Jewish community.
It is not unusual for 500 students to attend Shabbat dinners at Chabad. With that many, Shabbat dinner tables will fill two dining halls, one for students on the main floor, the other upstairs for alumni and young professionals—many who’ve moved to the area and were involved with Chabad at their respective schools.
A large majority who come to Chabad were raised in traditional homes, but they’re finding something at Chabad that they say, was missing in their own religious upbringing.
“Chabad brings spirituality to a whole new level, even to students who come from religious backgrounds,” said Ariel Menche, a junior with a major in accounting and art history, who went to a Jewish Day School. “The spiritual depth here is really attractive to a lot of students like myself.”
With a Jewish student population at NYU of 6,500, Chabad House Bowery is now striving to reach out to more unaffiliated Jewish students, says the rabbi. Most recently Chabad’s partnered with the Jewish Heritage Program to create the Steinhardt Fellows which recruits students who have no Jewish background to be entrepreneurial in developing Jewish life.
Korn takes his inspiration from the Rebbe and is not shy about hammering that point home again and again. “We want to restructure how organizations work based on the Rebbe’s ideas. We’ve got big staff and big ideas, but no bureaucracy, minimal egos. It’s all grassroots, organic. We’re building a tapestry that’s very diverse—and this is very ‘Rebbe’—striving for excellence with maximum creativity.”
On Boweryjews.com, Chabad’s funky website, students pick from a menu with cheeky titles for programs that pack punch and content: Shut Up & Learn, Get It Done, and Global Initiative Do Tank, each with Chabad Bowery’s unique brand appeal challenging students to step up as leaders and make real change.
Dreamers they are, but their personal warmth and concern for individual students is as much a part of the Korns’ focus as their big visions. Sarah and her husband see students in 15 and 30 minute time slots over, respectively, Coffee With Korn, Study With Sarah. Korn on Chassidut and Jewish Women in History are among some of the weekly classes they offer.
Unstoppable, Rabbi Korn recently opened a new Chabad center serving NYU law students, and has plans to expand even further. And did I know that besides Tel Aviv, the Greenwich Village area has the largest population of Jews under age 35 in the world.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he promises.