Honoring the multigenerational impact of a thriving campus center
Danielle Druck was parading around New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood with hundreds of celebrants when her 11-year-old son Charlie exclaimed: “We’re going to jail! You can’t block traffic!”
After a few minutes, he accepted that the June 18 celebration in honor of a new Sefer Torah written for the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life at Binghamton University was sanctioned, and said: “This is so cool! We’re dancing in the middle of the street with a Torah!”
Rabbi Aaron and Rivkah Slonim commissioned the Binghamton Legacy Torah in conjunction with the center’s 30-year anniversary at the public university in Upstate New York. It took about a year-and-a-half for the Torah to be written. Last week’s celebration at the Chelsea Shul-Rohr Center for JGrads followed a gala dinner back in November, and a Hachnasat Sefer Torah ceremony is scheduled at Binghamton this fall to officially welcome the new arrival to its home.
Many of the university’s events take place in New York City because of the preponderance of students and alumni who, like Druck, come from the tri-state area and move back there after college. She graduated from the school in 1999, and like many others, has remained in touch with the Slonims.
“They keep up with alumni and somehow always remember how many children you have, what their names are, where you live,” said Druck, 39, a mother of four. “They have stellar memories and seem to take a vested interest in everyone who passes through their doors.”
That effort to keep up with people visiting the Chabad center is an antidote to the transient nature of college life, she added.
Druck, who studied English and Judaic studies, went to Chabad on Friday nights because it served as a “microcosm of comfort and security amidst the macrocosm of the frenetic college energy.”
When she thinks back on some of what stands out during the college years, she recalls the Jewish activities the Slonims encouraged her to participate in, as well as sharing Jewish knowledge with her peers and inspiring them one on one with words and actions, such as giving away menorahs in the dining hall at Chanukah time.
After college, getting together with friends, their families and the Slonims at reunions and weddings reinforce those strong memories linked to school.
“Students come through and they are with us for three, four years, and then it’s the way of the world for them to move on, so we have a community without borders,” explained Rivkah Slonim. “We love them so much and are so invested in their lives, but then they move on. We thought that the commissioning and writing of a Torah would be a spiritual and practical way to unite current students with alumni and their parents, with the children of alumni and with the local Jewish community.”
‘The Black Box of Judaism’
The Slonims arrived at the school, which sits along the Susquehanna River near the border with Pennsylvania, in late 1985, and soon after established the campus Chabad center.
“Our focus was on doing what the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] wanted, trying to build this organization. This was before there were a lot of Chabad centers on campuses, and there wasn’t a playbook to take a page out of,” said Slonim. “We were just hoping that we could attract students.”
Attract they did. These days, an average of 350 to 400 students participate in Friday-night Shabbat dinner—a full 10 percent of the estimated 3,500 students who are Jewish. Add to that hundreds more who come for classes, targeted programs and holiday events. An annual dinner event called “Shabbat 1800” more than triples that number. But rather than rest easy because of such success, Slonim said she often feels overwhelmed by “the sheer magnitude” of what depends on their ability to continue to connect with students.
The parents of nine children, the Slonims emphasize that the Torah acts as a link between the past and the future. They decided to commission the scroll for this anniversary year because, said Rabbi Slonim, “the Mishnah says 30 is the age of strength, and we wanted to go forward in strength from this milestone.”
“It’s not just another Torah,” he said. “It’s a Torah that includes and encompasses thousands and thousands of students and alumni and families who went through the Chabad House over the past 32 years.” Every time it is read, it links Jews all over the world—from Australia to Israel, England, South Africa, Canada and throughout the United States, to name just some of the places Binghamton alumni reside.
“It is a great unification of souls,” emphasized the rabbi. He noted the Rebbe’s campaign to encourage that all Jews participate in the writing of a Torah scroll, a resulting act that expresses inherent unity: one nation, one Torah, one G d. Children—“the guarantors of the Jewish future”—are of special importance in this mitzvah, he said, which is accomplished by purchasing a letter or part of the Torah in the process of being written, as done in full by the extended Binghamton community.
Yael Mandel has become close with the Slonims just from visiting her daughter, Shelby, on parents’ weekends for the past two years. Among other things, they have noticed how the Chabad staff—six emissaries in total, including the couple’s son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Levi and Hadasa Slonim; and Rabbi Zalman and Rochel Chein—focuses on seemingly small gestures, like delivering meals prior to Shabbat for students not able to make it to the center. They also embraced Shelby during Shavuot, for festivities and food, when she had to remain at school rather than return home to Long Island for the holiday.
“She was so nervous about being away from family for such a special holiday, but the Slonims made it so beautiful for her,” said Mandel.
When the Mandels heard about plans for the new Torah, they didn’t hesitate for a second in offering their support: “We knew that we were committed to helping in this endeavor. It’s all a tribute to Chabad and how much love they give to the students of Binghamton.”
At the recent celebration of the new Torah, in addition to the writing of its final letters and the procession in the city, brunch was served and kids kept busy with crafts, including making their own stuffed Torahs to take home. Druck noticed the diversity in age and background among the abundance of attendees, and said unequivocally that it “epitomized the unity of this project.”
By: Karen Schwartz