By Cindy Mindell ~
WEST HARTFORD – Thirty-five years after the Chabad-Lubavitch movement established a presence in greater Hartford, local Chabad leaders are about to see a dream realized.
Chabad House of Greater Hartford and Chabad Chevra at the University of Hartford will dedicate the new Rohr Chabad House in a community-wide celebration on Sunday, Apr. 29 at 12 noon.
The property at 100 Bloomfield Ave. has been in the legal spotlight for nearly three years, ever since Chabad Chevra purchased it in 2009 with a grant from the George and Pamela Rohr Family Foundation. Formerly owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Church and then the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut, the building was to serve both as a residence for Rabbi Yosef and Dalia Kulek and as a communal worship space and student activity center.
Neighbors have been generally supportive, says Rabbi Yosef Gopin, director of Chabad House of greater Hartford. But soon after the Kuleks initiated programming in the new building, a group of neighbors lodged a complaint with the City of Hartford. Chabad was served by a Hartford zoning officer with a cease-and-desist order, prohibiting the property from being used for religious activity. But Klulek, represented by the law firm of Levy & Droney, took the city to court.
In January, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Maria Araujo-Kahn ruled in favor of Chabad Chevra at the University of Hartford, and the City of Hartford opted not to appeal the decision.
Rabbi Yosef Kulek has led Chabad Chevra at the university since 2000, when student activities were held at Chabad House of greater Hartford on Albany Avenue, nearly three miles from campus. “When I first came, I never imagined that we would have a building next to the university,” he says. In 2007, the rabbi and his wife Dalia relocated to Kirkwood Avenue, about a mile from campus.
“We saw the difference that the move made for the students,” Kulek says, with average attendance at weekly Shabbat dinners increasing from 20 to 35. At the Bloomfield Avenue location, it is not unusual to see 80 students at the Shabbat table, he says.
“Friday night at the Chabad House is a happening thing,” Kulek says. “Kids can come hang out or talk to me or to Dalia if things are stressful on campus.”
Gopin says that it was always his intention to bring a full-time Chabad presence to the university since 1977, when he and wife Miriam were sent to Hartford to establish the first Chabad House in Connecticut. They began in a two-bedroom apartment on Farmington Avenue, establishing the first full-time Jewish student-activity program on the University of Hartford campus. As their involvement in the community at large increased, the Gopins engaged a series of part-time rabbis at the university, finally bringing in the Kuleks as fulltime directors 12 years ago.
“The ability to buy a Chabad House is not a simple thing,” Gopin says. “We have felt for a long time that, to make a real impact at the university, we needed a fulltime presence. To attract students and give them what they need, we must have a Chabad House.”
The purchase was a communal effort, starting with a $250,000 grant from the Rohr Family Foundation that was used to secure a mortgage. The Lazowski family and David Chase, longtime supporters of Chabad of Greater Hartford, presented to the Hartford Planning & Zoning Commission helped negotiate with American Baptist Churches of Connecticut, Gopin says, reducing the sale from the $610,000 asking price to $400,000. “The owners really appreciated and respected the work we do,” he says. “There were other potential buyers who wanted to fix up the property and sell it at a profit, but they chose to sell to us.”
In addition to Shabbat dinner, Chabad Chevra hosts study sessions and workshops, and holiday celebrations. Over Passover week, with no kosher option at the UHa dining facilities, students come to the house for lunch and dinner. Kulek says that, with several guest bedrooms, he and Dalia will be able to extend home hospitality to students’ parents.
“It really is a family affair,” he says. “The students feel like it’s their Chabad House. All during the week, it’s a real center of activity.” He waxes mystical about the milestone to be celebrated on Apr. 29. “There has been hashgacha pratit – divine providence – every step of the way,” he says. “Everything that has happened has its reason.”
Gopin says that the neighbors have been warm and welcoming, including University of Hartford President Walter Harrison. “Wherever we are, we work very hard to be a light to others and helpful to the community,” Gopin says.