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Public University With Largest Number of Jewish Students ‘Gains’ Ground

Public University With Largest Number of Jewish Students ‘Gains’ Ground

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Participants at the ribbon-cutting included, from left, Rabbi Aharon Notik, Jeff Meldon, Lillian Tabacinic, Moshe Tabacinic, Bernard Machen, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Frederic G. Levin, Martin Levin, Rabbi Berl Goldman, Brenton Goodman and Teri Levin.
Participants at the ribbon-cutting included, from left, Rabbi Aharon Notik, Jeff Meldon, Lillian Tabacinic, Moshe Tabacinic, Bernard Machen, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Frederic G. Levin, Martin Levin, Rabbi Berl Goldman, Brenton Goodman and Teri Levin.

Elias Benarroach, 26, grew up with a strong connection to Judaism and Jewish life in the tight-knit community of Caracas, Venezuela. The software engineer said that he lost that feeling at the age of 13, when his family immigrated to the United States and settled in south Florida.

He rediscovered his love of Judaism soon after arriving at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Two days after coming to campus, he received an invitation to a Shabbat meal at the Chabad center and home of Rabbi Berl and Chanie Goldman. From the moment he walked inside, Benarroach said he felt as if he’d found his second home.

The only problem—if you could call it that—recalled the 2010 graduate, was overcrowding: Hosting programs, the Goldmans would often run out of chairs and space. Larger events, such as High Holiday services or Passover seders, had to be held in a permanent tent outside the Chabad center.

Didn’t it ever rain?

“It’s Florida, of course, it did!” replied Benarroach. “But we managed.”

The Gainesville community won’t have to manage anymore.

On Feb. 9, some 450 people gathered for the official dedication and opening of Chabad at U.F.’s new $4.8 million, 23,000-square-foot state-of-the-art building. The multifaceted center was built to cater to a wide range of student needs and comes complete with a lounge, fitness room, laundry facilities, synagogue, and full kosher dining center where lunch and dinner will be served. In addition, a rabbi will be on site around the clock to assist students.

And in a nod to environmental consciousness, the facility was designed to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.

Chabad at University of Florida's new $4.8 million, 23,000-square-foot state-of-the-art building was designed to cater to a wide range of student needs.
Chabad at University of Florida's new $4.8 million, 23,000-square-foot state-of-the-art building was designed to cater to a wide range of student needs.

The new building—The Tabacinic Campus and Marilyn Kapner Levin Center for Jewish Life and Learning—is named in memory of Menachem Mendel and Sheindel Tabacinic, and Shmuel and Sarah Rohr, dedicated to them by their children, Moshe and Lillian Tabacinic. The Levin Center is named in memory of Frederic G. Levin’s wife and dedicated by their family, who are benefactors of the College of Law at the University of Florida.

Among many other supporters was local software maven, spiritual author and 1971 University of Florida graduate Michael A. Singer, who dedicated the Abraham Synagogue and Hall.

Numerous local leaders and politicians attended the opening, including U.S. Congressman Ted Yoho, who represents Florida’s 3rd Congressional District. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida sent a video greeting that warmed the crowd.

Those who spoke included Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, and chairman of Chabad on Campus International Foundation; University of Florida President Bernard Machen; university senior Erica Freeman, who told the crowd that she really didn't find her place at school until she found Chabad; and the Goldmans’ 10-year-old daughter, Rochel, who introduced herself as a “proud shlucha [emissary] ... born into the job.”

“This is truly a great day for all of us, but now my siblings and I are not going to be able to say, ‘Tatty, what’s with that new building that you always dream about?’ Every time we said that, he said, ‘It’s coming along, it’s coming along.’ Tatty, we were never worried, but boy am I happy that it’s finished!”

And then she told a story, about how every good deed counts and how it’s impossible to know the far-reaching effects of that good deed.

Guests view the new center, which comes complete with a lounge, fitness room, laundry facilities, synagogue and kosher dining center.
Guests view the new center, which comes complete with a lounge, fitness room, laundry facilities, synagogue and kosher dining center.

“A young rabbi in a college town once kvetched to the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] that he doesn’t know how he will get in touch with all 7,000 Jewish students on his campus,” she began. “To which the Rebbe replied: ‘You must reach seven. Then each of them will reach seven, and each of them will reach seven, and on and on and on.’

“That’s how my parents began here, first a small house on Seventh Place, then a bigger house on Fifth Avenue, then a tent and trailers, and finally, this beautiful building. But all of this only happened with all of you—our friends, supporters, alumni, current students, parents, family and community of Gainesville.”

Moshe Tabacinic, Levin, Singer and Machen joined Kotlarsky in snipping the bright blue-and-orange ribbon officially welcoming folks into the center on a day on the southeast U.S. coast that was far nicer than the weather up north.

Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International Foundation, was present at the event and has advised many emissaries, including the Goldmans, on handling the growth of Chabad centers and student populations. He emphasized that “Chabad on Campus works to meet the needs of Jewish students, wherever they are. And they certainly are here in Florida, where our existing center just became bigger and better, with an expansive new building they can call a second home and one that should serve them well in so many different ways.”

Young People in Droves

Goldman pointed out that, when it comes to construction projects, people often quote from the 1989 American fantasy-drama film “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.”

Yet the rabbi stated that in this case, the opposite was true. “They came, so we had to build it.”

It’s not hard to see why: Between 6,000 and 8,000 Jewish students attend the University of Florida, the largest Jewish population of any public university in the United States.

In addition, the University of Central Florida in Orlando, about an hour-and-a-half from Gainesville, has the third-largest Jewish population of any public university. With Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties accounting for two of the top 10 Jewish populations in the country, it’s clear that the Sunshine State isn’t just for seniors and snowbirds anymore.

Attendees dance in celebration at the grand opening.
Attendees dance in celebration at the grand opening.

The Goldmans have seen an exponential growth in Jewish life on campus since they first arrived in 2000. Since that time they have held programs in tents, trailers and temporary buildings. Their home has often been overcrowded with guests. While Goldman said he is satisfied the work is completed, he has no plans to rest on his laurels.

“Building a building is easy. But we have to ask the question every day, why isn’t it full?” he said.

“Our main purpose here in Gainesville,” the rabbi added, “is to provide a safe haven for Jewish life and learning for the students and the Gainesville community. We believe every person, regardless of observance or affiliation, should have a place where they feel comfortable to grow, physically and spiritually.”

‘Full of Happiness’

Shirley Nagar, a 2012 graduate originally from Cooper City, Fla., flew in from New York City, where she now lives and works, to be part of the celebration.

Nagar said a new home was needed, and she is gratified that current students will be able to take advantage of it.

“You could see it was cramped,” Nagar said of Chabad’s former home, which was torn down to make room for the new one. “It was always a full house. It was always full of happiness.”

For Jeremy Garvett, a 22-year-old senior, it was his passion for martial arts that led him to Chabad. He had studied it for years and before freshman year, Garvett’s father called around looking for an outlet on campus so his son could continue his martial-arts training.

The new building—The Tabacinic Campus and Marilyn Kapner Levin Center for Jewish Life and Learning—is named in memory of Menachem Mendel and Sheindel Tabacinic, and Shmuel and Sarah Rohr, dedicated to them by their children, Moshe and Lilian Tabacinic. The Levin Center is named in memory of Frederic G. Levin’s wife and dedicated by their family.
The new building—The Tabacinic Campus and Marilyn Kapner Levin Center for Jewish Life and Learning—is named in memory of Menachem Mendel and Sheindel Tabacinic, and Shmuel and Sarah Rohr, dedicated to them by their children, Moshe and Lilian Tabacinic. The Levin Center is named in memory of Frederic G. Levin’s wife and dedicated by their family.

It was Goldman who connected Garvett with the Jewish leader of the kickboxing club on campus.

Garvett ended up at a Shabbat dinner a few days after arriving on campus, and soon became a fixture at programs and services. (Full disclosure: He admitted he has been known to show up towards the end of Saturday services mainly to enjoy the kiddish meal.)

Garvett said he has never been particularly religious—and that hasn’t changed much in four years. Still, he noted, his attitude towards Judaism has changed greatly. While in the past, he never thought it was important to marry a Jewish woman or raise Jewish children, now he says he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“Chabad has made me more proud to be Jewish,” he said. “The rabbi has been like a second father to me.”

A few days before the grand opening, Goldman, reached on his cell phone, said he planned to remind those present of the most important idea of the day: the “responsibility we have to the current generation of students as the future.”



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David S. Levine Hobe Sound, Florida via chabadmsl.com February 21, 2014

Changed Attitudes At the end of the article we read how a young man who thought it was not important to marry a Jewish woman and raise Jewish children now says that he couldn't imagine doing anything else. that alone show the need for Chabad on campus and may this new facility strengthen its presence at that one for all eternity. Reply

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