When Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yaakov and Zoey Saacks moved from Brooklyn to the Suffolk County community of Dix Hills, N.Y., their newly-formed Chai Center began in their home. Prayer services took place in their dining room; they ran a Hebrew school from their kitchen.

In the 18 years since, the Chai Center has seen its location change, to be sure. In 1998, it erected a building with plenty of classrooms; during the construction, the Saacks ran the show from a trailer, using the slogan, “have minyan, will travel.” And while the mission has stayed the same, the center is expanding yet again.

“We are once again rebuilding,” Yaakov Saacks said at a Dec. 12 banquet for community members and friends at the Jericho Jewish Center. “Starting construction soon, we plan to expand 12,000 square feet, adding classrooms and doubling the size of the synagogue.”

More than 300 people attended the dinner, which honored Michael and Mindy Ashley, and Lou and Beth Ziemba. Radio host Dennis Prager delivered the keynote address.

In his remarks, Lou Ziemba, who is a major force behind the new construction project, stressed that the Chai Center is his spiritual home.

Chabad is my whole life,” he announced. “At first, when I saw the building coming up [in 1998], I was intrigued. I walked into the building, I met the rabbi, and said I would like to get involved."

“Being a Holocaust survivor and never really being involved [before], I said I’m going to go here,” he continued. “I realized that there is nobody else to say Kaddish for my family that I lost, so I made a commitment that I would say Kaddish every day.”

Radio host Dennis Prager delivered the keynote address. (Photo: Levi Stein)
Radio host Dennis Prager delivered the keynote address. (Photo: Levi Stein)

According to Saacks, stories such as Liemba’s are repeated many times over among those who take part in the Chai Center’s programs.

“As our programs grew, and the community kept on coming in, it was time to bring in reinforcements,” he offered as a historical aside, referring to Rabbi Avraham and Deena Lehr, the center’s youth directors. “The secret to our success is really no secret at all: It is the people! Our philosophy is to offer a joyous and happy place for people to come to, to offer a place where people can enjoy their Judaism. We teach people to celebrate life completely and not just live it.”

For his part, Michael Ashley spoke of a unity he finds at the Chai Center.

“Everybody feels like they’re a part of a team. They feel like they’re loved,” he said. “He is not just my rabbi, he is my best friend, he is a great person, and I think if you go around the room here and you speak to the 300 people here, they will all tell you the same thing.”

Mindy Ashley concurred.

“We really feel like a family, and I think what Chabad has done for us is give us a home,” she said. “The synagogue has really given us a sense of purpose.”