Jay Blumenstein met Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yonah and Keren Blum back in 1997, when they lived in a small apartment on Manhattan’s 110th Street. Since then, he’s watched Chabad at Columbia University grow from a living-room operation out of a 400-square-foot apartment to a massive brownstone stuffed with students on a weekly basis. Over the years, Blumenstein has learned and laughed with the rabbi, and whenever they get together, they pick up right where they left off.

“I lived across the street from him and we used to shine flashlights across the street at each other,” he recalled fondly. “He’s a cool guy, and a good friend.”

Blumenstein and others shared their stories as the Chabad House celebrated its 15th anniversary Thursday night at the Ivy League campus’ central Low Memorial Library. Nearly 200 guests sat around tables themed around the center’s years, with centerpieces made to look like trees in celebration of the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish new year of trees. Hanging from the small branches were pictures of the people who’ve come to consider the Blums family, from a couple who met in the Chabad House’s sukkah and friends who’ve connected over years of holidays, meals and community events.

The hors d’oeuvre hour saw spicy tuna cones and mini franks, sweet potato lollipops and chicken skewers passed around as students, faculty and friends mingled over memories of the Blum family. Then they moved on to dinner inside featuring sushi, an assorted Argentinian grill and Mediterranean salad bar.

Up at the podium, Nobel laureate Dr. Richard Axel spoke of Chabad’s dynamic presence on both a global and local scale, and introduced his friend, fellow Nobel laureate Dr. Eric Kandel, who spoke to the crowd about the Jewish values of scholarship, ethics and the desire to make the world a better place. Kandel received a standing ovation from the crowd as he accepted the Columbia Lamplighter Award and reflected on Chabad’s strengthening of Jewish life and values. He also talked about the reach of the Blums’ achievements.

“Through their efforts, Yonah and Keren Blum have been successful not only at Columbia but nationally” through the work of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, Kandel told the applauding audience. “The Blums represent Chabad at its best.”

In his speech, the physician emphasized Chabad’s love for the diversity of the Jewish people and the impact of its inclusiveness.

Noted author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin also took the podium to speak to the mesmerized crowd about the revolution in Jewish life that was set in motion by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and fueled by a veritable army of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries across the world.

Other honorees included Karen Cohen, who came in from Florida to receive the Parent Award, Alan Croitoru, who received the Young Leadership Award, and the Blums.

Leah Kohn, a Ph.D. graduate student at Columbia who converted to Judaism in 2008, brought her parents to the event and said she was glad to see the program designed to reach everyone.

“My parents came away feeling like Chabad was something special and something worth supporting, even though they didn’t know anything about it going in,” she said.

As an engineer, she appreciated Kandel’s comments about science and his observation that Judaism is similarly about never being satisfied and constantly striving for deep truths.

“I think that’s what makes a scientist,” said Kohn, “and that’s what makes a religious person.”

The gala took place at the central Low Library.
The gala took place at the central Low Library.

Journalism professor Ari Goldman, who arrived at Columbia three years before the Blums, referenced the all-consuming celebration of Jewish life they brought to campus, from an annual Chanukah menorah lighting on the Low Library’s steps to Sukkot celebrations that include the entire campus community.

“They’ve made it not just okay to be Jewish, but wonderful to be Jewish here,” he said. “[They set] an example of Jewish pride for us.”

For her part, Keren Blum, who like her husband was flooded throughout the evening by excited guests and well-wishers, said she looks forward to a continued future of growth and appreciated the community support that has made and will make such growth possible.

“And now we need a new one-year, five-year and ten-year plan,” she stated.

Yael Rosenzweig, a Columbia alumna who graduated from a social work graduate program in May, recalled the impact the Blums have had on her. They took her in one Sabbath before ever getting to know her, and became her home away from home for the following six months.

“I walked in a few hours before Shabbat, and the girls took me to the guest room,” she said. “I was instantly at home.”

Every so often, Rosenzweig, who now lives in Westchester County, returns to teach the Blum daughters ballet.

As a member of the event’s planning committee, Rosenzweig said she was glad to be able to help out.

“It gave me the opportunity,” she explained, “to finally be able to honor them in the way they deserve.”

Sam Freedman, a Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor, has known the Blumbs for at least 10 years and in that time, has watched their Chabad House grow into a powerful force on campus. He said they’ve not only added immense depth to Jewish life on Columbia’s campus, but that their work reflects the impact of Chabad in embracing Jews of all stripes and meeting Jewish needs and flexibility, “with this infusion of energy and spirit on campuses all over.”

Alan Croitoru, who received the student leadership award at the event, said since the first time he went to the Blums for Shabbat dinner in 2009, he’s been treated like family.

“You feel accepted as soon as you meet them,” he explained. “They give you a hug without knowing who you are, and that’s not just for me, but for everyone who goes to their home.”

It’s the kind of place he wants to introduce to his friends.

“I tell them to come to Chabad,” he said. “It’s a very special place. You won’t regret it.”