Hundreds of candles glinted off wine glasses while a burnished chandelier hanging from a 70-foot-high ceiling cast a rosy glow over the packed marble-clad ballroom of New York City’s Gotham Hall.

By all accounts, the Oct. 17 celebratory dinner – a tribute to Chabad-Lubavitch of Binghamton’s 25 years serving students, faculty and community members at Binghamton University – and its gilded air would have been unthinkable in the organization’s early days.

When Rabbi Aaron and Rivkah Slonim first arrived to the school in 1985, “it was all new and uncharted territory,” she revealed as the crowd of 600 people filed in. Nothing could have predicted the revolution the Slonims’ arrival would set in motion among thousands of Jewish students, their families, communities back home, and future pursuits.

“What the Slonims offer is genuine,” alumna Lori Ben-Ezra, Class of 1987, one of the dinner’s many honorees, announced after taking the dais with her husband and fellow honoree, Marc Ben-Ezra, who also graduated in 1987. It’s a “genuine and incredible love for and understanding of people, a genuine love for Judaism and a genuine home away from home that students can turn to and find leadership and guidance.

“There is no doubt that their work is successful and that it becomes multiplied after students graduate and continue to nurture their Jewish heritage within their own families and communities,” continued Ben-Ezra, who met her future husband at Binghamton’s Kosher Kitchen. “It’s plain and simple. An investment in Chabad of Binghamton is an investment in the future generations of Jews, in better citizenship and in our communities.”

When the Ben-Ezras were undergrads, the Slonims first reached out to students from an information table at the student union and through Shabbat dinners in the young couple’s tiny off-campus apartment. But before they knew it, the dinners took off; they were so popular and the apartment became so crowded each Friday night that they moved to a house. The basement of that home also became overcrowded, and developer Barry Newman was called in to create an extra fire door.

“When I saw them crammed into that room like sardines, I realized what they needed wasn’t a new fire escape,” Newman deadpanned for the crowd at the Gotham. “They needed a new building.”

And they got one. Several years later, the center expanded again, and then again.

Newman, who today serves as the organization’s president of the board, assisted the Slonims through three separate expansions. The latest project, the $3.5 million Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life, opened its doors two years ago.

The Slonims – with the assistance of their son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Levi and Hadasa Slonim, who serve as program directors, and Rabbi Zalman and Rochel Chein, who head up Bingamton’s Chabad on the West Side – reach thousands of students each year. More than 500 take part in classes and assorted activities at the center each week.

“Every year the number grows,” said Aaron Slonim.

Brian T. Rose, Binghamton’s vice president for student affairs, noted that Chabad’s mission dovetails with the university’s quest to produce future leaders.

“Chabad aims for each student that comes through its doors to be not only a better Jew, but a better person,” said Rose. “The essence of a Binghamton education is that we want each student to become not only a better chemist, economist, engineer, or musician, but also a better person.”

Hundreds of people packed New York City’s Gotham Hall for the gala event. (Photo: Levi Stein)
Hundreds of people packed New York City’s Gotham Hall for the gala event. (Photo: Levi Stein)

Lifelong Devotion

In many ways, the dinner felt like a family reunion. It didn’t take long for the ballroom to brim with guests, who exchanged warm greetings, hugged and chatted excitedly before the dinner formally began. Alumni, their parents, family members and friends came from points far and near to attend. Tobey Lass, Class of 2010, took advantage of the chance to reconnect with old classmates and reminisce.

Lass, who is now a graduate student at Columbia University, said she was excited to be back among friends.

“I’m upset all the time that I’m away from Chabad. I’m always wishing I was still there,” she said. “This organization is just so special.”

Many came to show their love for the Slonims and the couple’s devotion for Binghamton students that doesn’t end at graduation.

“I have tremendous gratitude and appreciation for the Slonims,” said Rikki Holtzman, Class of 1994. “Just as much as they were my friends when I was a student, they are still guiding me.”

Parents at the dinner were just as enthused.

“The Jewish life at Binghamton is outstanding,” said Beverly Druck, a mother of two Binghamton graduates. “It provides a community and a home and has given my oldest daughter lifelong friends. I don't know of any other schools that provide that kind of warmth.”

In her remarks, Rivkah Slonim captured the spirit of the evening.

“We are a community without borders, an extended family,” she said. “This is not an organizational dinner in the conventional sense. It’s … a gathering propelled by love and passion.”

Honorees, who received awards for their leadership and involvement during their time at the university and their dedication to its Jewish community after graduation, represented specific eras in Chabad of Binghamton’s history.

The Ben-Ezras represented those who attended between 1985 and 1990. Dr. Steven Katz was on hand for students from 1990 to 1995. Ari and Naomi Rosenfeld, who met in the Slonims’ sukkah, a temporary hut that’s a fixture of celebrations during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, represented the years 1995 to 2000. Stuart and Stacy Mayer, who also met through Chabad of Binghamton, represented the next five years; and another couple, David and Meeka Levin Natanov, represented the years since 2005.

Also at the dinner, current students Jon Cogan and Dayna Driscoll presented a plaque to the Slonims on behalf of the Chabad Student Executive Board.

“Through Chabad I have not just grown as a person, but as a Jew, a Jewish woman who finally has a Jewish identity she is proud of,” Driscoll told the crowd. “Thank you for empowering us.”

Levi Slonim was ecstatic about the turnout.

“It was a celebration of the entire family of Chabad of Binghamton,” he commented. “We celebrated what we have created together.”

For his part, Aaron Slonim voiced the shared desire of those in the room.

Said the rabbi: “We’re looking forward to another 25 years together.”