For some, winter is a time to hunker down and huddle at home.
Not so for the Chabad emissaries in Wilmington, Del. For them, winter is busy, busy, busy—chock full of events like the ones that just took place over the last few weeks.
There was the annual “Legos & Latkes” Chanukah party, which is always sold out; a Saturday-night café and movie night; and a weekend Shabbaton. Add to that a full slate of Torah classes, Hebrew school, teen events, Sunday pizza sales and more.
If it sounds exciting—and perhaps, exhausting—then that’s music to the ears of Rabbi Chuni and Oryah Vogel, who came to the country’s first state almost three decades ago and found it severely lacking in Jewish amenities.
“People gave us six months,” Oryah Vogel recalls. “They didn’t expect us to stay longer.”
Says her husband: “I gave the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—the report on the area, and it was not a very glowing one. The reality of Jewish life then was that there was no kosher food to be had, there was no mikvah,” and hardly anyone kept Shabbat. “I wrote that to the Rebbe, but obviously, I was willing to go.”
After the Rebbe gave the Vogels a blessing for their work as Chabad shluchim, or emissaries—provided they build a mikvah as soon as possible—the couple relocated with their baby son and began looking for Delaware’s Jews.
‘Doing a Little Bit of Everything’
Fast-forward 27 years and the Jewish community of Wilmington—not to mention Chabad of Delaware—is thriving.
Rabbi Chuni Vogel, left, with County Councilman Robert S. Weiner at Chanukah time
“Can I say things have changed? Absolutely!” declares Rabbi Vogel. “We have a community that has developed around our facility, our Chabad center. Many families have become shomer Shabbat, and have sold their houses and moved closer to be within walking distance to the shul. There’s clearly an awareness of Yiddishkeit that one feels in the community.
“Today, when one is seen with a yarmulke, it’s no longer assumed that he’s Rabbi Vogel’s brother. Thank G‑d, there have been great strides.”
But keeping up with the changes and providing programming for Jews of all ages throughout the state can be challenging for just two people. In addition to the Chabad Center in Wilmington, the Vogels run occasional summer programs in Bethany Beach, a popular tourist resort. Many years ago, they oversaw activities at the University of Delaware in Newark; today, the Chabad Center for Jewish Life at the University of Delaware is run by Rabbi Eliezer and Roni Sara Sneiderman.
According to the American Jewish Year Book, some 15,000 Jews live in Delaware. Overall, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population of Delaware at nearly 920,000 people.
“When you are the only shaliach in town, you do a little bit of everything,” says Vogel. “You really are not able to give full focus to anything. Then comes a point when you realize that you can use extra help; that the focus can be much sharper when you have” someone of a different generation.
So when Rabbi Motti and Rochel Flikshtein, a newly married couple, mentioned that they were interested in serving as Chabad emissaries, the Vogels figured it might be a good fit, especially given that Rochel is from Wilmington, and had herself become more religious because of her interactions with the Vogels.
“The Vogels are amazing,” says Rabbi Flikshtein, who was raised as a non-observant Jew by his Russian immigrant parents before he began his path to Chabad and the rabbinate. “And they have the whole state on their shoulders, so we thought maybe we could divide and conquer. … Maybe help build the community [even more] and bring in younger people.”
As Mrs. Vogel recounts, before they announced that the Flikshteins would be joining Chabad of Delaware nearly four years ago, the two rabbis and Rochel Flikshtein went to the Ohel, the resting place of the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson and his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson—to pray and ask for success with their endeavor. While there, her husband ran into Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The two men greeted each other, and Kotlarsky told her husband: “You will never believe what I just found—the Rebbe’s bracha [blessing] to you when you went out 23 years ago.
“My husband was in shock,” recalls Oryah Vogel. “And says to him: ‘Rabbi Kotlarsky, do you know why we are here? To get a bracha for new shluchim we want to bring down—and it’s like we got an answer on the spot.’
“It was really amazing; we were so blessed. There’s no doubt this was so meant to be.”
‘Searching for Diamonds’
The Flikshteins serve as the Youth and Family Program directors and work to offer a host of new programming for this age group.
“Coming back to Delaware,” Rochel Flikshtein begins, “there are a lot of kids I was in preschool or elementary school with, and have a connection with. It’s fun to have them over for Shabbos.”
One popular program she runs is a monthly family challah bake, where mothers and their children make challah together for Shabbat. An annual “Mega Challah Bake,” now in its fourth year, will be held on Jan. 12 at the Siegel JCC in Wilmington, and is co-hosted by other Jewish organizations and synagogues in Delaware. More than 130 women and girls are expected to attend.
“There are plenty of young families who are unaffiliated, and it’s just a matter of digging them up. That’s our goal,” says Rabbi Flikshtein. “One of the nicknames of Delaware is the diamond state, and we like to say we are searching for diamonds. There are so many young diamonds who don’t even know it. We are here to find them and tell them why they are so valuable.”
Young families mean kids, and that has led to the creation of JKidz, a weekly Hebrew school. The two-year-old school is housed in lower level of the Chabad Center, which was recently renovated to accommodate classrooms. Ten children comprised the first class; enrollment has more than doubled this year.
Offerings for teenagers are also being expanded. Every other week, they gather for CTeen, an international program that includes a social-action and learning component.
“It’s phenomenally successful,” says Rabbi Vogel. “Every session, we have new kids coming on board.”
For Rabbi Flikshtein, working with teens allows an old passion comes in handy. “I used to be a big-time rapper before I became frum. I was into hip-hop and rap; I performed and had an album,” he says, declining to reveal his old musical moniker. “But after I became observant, I stopped rapping for a while.”
At the urging of his rabbi, who told Flikshtein to use his musical talents for the positive, the rapping rabbi has a new stage name—“Mor-to-Life”—as well as a new album, Coming Home. “When I meet young kids, I will give them an album and kids can connect to that. The kids say, ‘Oh, this guy is so cool and not judging me.’ ”
The opening of the Hebrew school has led to another program: “Heavenly Pizza.” With no kosher food outlets in the state—the only kosher eatery closed up several years ago—the sale of kosher pizza every Sunday afternoon provides some people with a meal they don’t have to cook. Proceeds go to the JKidz’s tuition fund.
A pizza oven at the Chabad center attracts those who are hungry for more than just kosher food.
“We have a [number] of kids whose families can’t afford to pay but want to learn,” says Oryah Vogel, “so they come, and we have to offset the costs. The pizza sales help us do that.”
“Most of the people who come for pizza are not parents of the school,” says Rabbi Flikshtein, adding that they even have some non-Jews who stop in for a slice.
But it was only Rabbi Vogel’s foresight that made the pizza option possible.
“When we completed our building in 2007, I included a pizza oven in the kitchen because I had a vision of providing kosher food in a community where it is nonexistent. You can’t get kosher pizza in Delaware, so I thought we’d have the oven, and eventually, we’ll have the pizza.”
Making and serving it “brings families in, and educates children and adults” about kosher food,” he says. “It also builds a certain awareness that if you want cooked pizza, go for kosher pizza. It’s an educational process, and it provides a service to the community.”
Characterized by Growth
The growth in Chabad comes as the city of Wilmington—home to Vice President Joe Biden when he’s not in Washington, D.C.—has been revitalizing and redeveloping miles of land along the city’s riverfront. Long-empty warehouses have been converted into storefronts; restaurants and parks have been built; and companies are choosing to open offices in the once-dilapidated area.
From left: Rabbi Motti Flikshtein, Rabbi Chuni Vogel, Rochel Flikshtein and Oryah Vogel together on Purim.
“Wilmington has had its challenges,” acknowledges Rabbi Vogel. “When I first came here, the commerce of the City of Wilmington was dominated by pharmaceutical and chemical companies. … They employed a significant percentage of the workforce. It was a stable economy that attracted professionals of a high caliber.”
In the early 1990s, the financial sector grew with the establishment of major banks in the city. “But about 10 to 12 years later, things started to change,” the rabbi recalls.
The big chemical companies downsized. The economy took a downturn.
“It used to be, for a long time, a transient community,” says Oryah Vogel. “Because of the businesses, people used to come here for a couple of years and then leave. It’s more stable now.”
And with a stable population, the sky’s the limit for what Chabad of Delaware can accomplish.
Says Rabbi Vogel: “We have the core elements of a viable community that supports Jewish life. We have a beautiful center where people can connect with daily classes, a Hebrew school, holiday programs—all these are opportunities.
“All will, please G‑d, grow, and people will take more advantage of them and grow more,” the shaliach says. “We have programs most nights and some people will, after morning prayers, sit and learn for a bit before going off to work. I would love to see that expand.”