More than 500 people packed a Long Island banquet hall to honor a Chabad-Lubavitch center and its emissary couple who had worked tirelessly for almost 15 years to strengthen Jewish life in Nassau County, N.Y. But the couple, Rabbi Zalman and Chanie Wolowik, was noticeably missing.

The Wolowiks, directors of Chabad of the Five Towns, were observing the traditional mourning period – known as shiva – for their nine-year-old son Levi, who had tragically passed away just two nights before.

If the March 1 dinner’s organizers and honorees had had their way, there might have been no event at all. Some wanted to cancel, while others spoke of postponing the gala affair to some time after the traditional 30-day mourning period. But the Wolowiks would have none of it, and sent a note to the community urging everyone’s participation.

“I did not feel I would be able to celebrate,” related Tamar Pewzner, one of the evening’s honorees.

“We were all trying to push it off or to cancel it,” echoed Debbie Werner, another honoree. “People were saying they weren’t in the mood, that they would be going straight from the funeral to the dinner.”

Community members, who all share an individual and personal relationship with the Wolowiks, she said, “wanted to mourn with them.”

Nevertheless, the Wolowiks “felt that it was the right thing to go ahead with the Chabad dinner,” said Faivish Pewzner, a health executive.

The rabbi specifically asked Pewzner “not only to be happy,” but, in keeping with the joy inherent in the current Jewish month of Adar, “to increase in joy.”

Remembered by friends as a mature and bright boy, Levi Wolowik attended summer camp in Michigan.
Remembered by friends as a mature and bright boy, Levi Wolowik attended summer camp in Michigan.

Thousands Line Streets

Hours before the dinner began, a funeral procession carried Levi Yitzchak Wolowik from a chapel in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park to his resting place at the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights. It passed by Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights and Chabad of the Five Towns, where the Wolowiks serve. The Chabad-Lubavitch community center and synagogue, located in Cedarhurst on Long Island, hosts a slew of programs for all segments of the Jewish community, from extensive holiday workshops and a sprawling youth calendar to adult-education classes and in-depth explorations of the Talmud.

Thousands of people crowded the streets in each neighborhood, leaving cars double- and sometimes triple-parked. At the funeral chapel in Boro Park, police units blocked the road outside.

Referring to the outpouring of grief, Tamar Pewzner said that the young boy was an emissary “just like his parents are. He sacrificed a lot, just like his parents do for this community.”

Levi was warm “to everyone he met,” Pewzner added, and “he was always meticulous in following the Jewish customs.”

“It was just a pleasure to see him in synagogue,” said Werner. “He was such a sweet boy. He was a good friend to all of our kids.”

He “just had a very good nature,” offered Leibel Shmotkin, a bunkmate of Levi’s at the Camp Gan Israel summer camp in Kalkaska, Mich. He “was an example to the rest of us in the way he learned and [prayed].”

“I can just see his smile,” said Leah Muller, who accompanied Levi on a trip to Israel in 2007. “He brought happiness to everybody.”

“He was very mature,” related Shmulik Greenberg, 20, Levi’s camp counselor. Despite his young age, “I remember that he did not need any help packing or unpacking.”

Dr. William Muller, a founding member of Chabad of the Five Towns, agreed, telling of an activity that he and Levi worked out on the Israel trip. Each day, the pair would decide on one Hebrew word to teach to their entire bus.

“He was a very wise and serious student,” said Muller.

Attendees at the dinner listen to remarks by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Levi’s grandfather. (Photo: Yosef Lewis)
Attendees at the dinner listen to remarks by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Levi’s grandfather. (Photo: Yosef Lewis)

Unity in Midst of Tragedy

Shortly after the funeral finished, the crowd began filling the grand ball room at Cedarhurst’s Sephardic Temple for the Chabad dinner. Predictably, the event began with a somber air.

“People were not sure how they were supposed to act,” said Werner. “We were just not sure whether we were really supposed to be happy or upset.”

Many felt out of place, she added, without the Wolowiks being there. “A lot of people know the rabbi in a personal way. When he’s in a room, he’s very approachable and friendly. People attend because of Rebbetzin Chanie and Rabbi Zalman.”

“I admire them,” said Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, N.Y., a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “I cherish them and the work they do. We have only the utmost admiration, both personally and communally.”

“The Wolowiks are a role model for inspiration,” echoed William Muller, “for caring and love, and for the fulfillment of life to its greatest extent.”

Behind the scenes, the couple “raise funds for people for their failing mortgages, and to provide for people’s basic needs when they lose their jobs,” he added. “It’s all done discreetly.”

(The day before his son’s passing, Zalman Wolowik organized a last-minute burial for a Jewish man who had died penniless. He spent the day raising the necessary funds, gathering a quorum for services, working through the legal requirements, and personally leading the burial ceremony. He returned home just moments before Shabbat.)

In a letter they wrote to the dinner’s attendees, which was placed beside each table setting, the Wolowiks sought to encourage their community, referring to teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, on dealing with tragedy.

“The only way to confront tragedy,” they wrote, “is to persist with even more energy and more joy.

“There could be no greater way to honor Levi,” the Wolowiks continued, than by each guest being there as an expression of Jewish unity. “[Levi] is no doubt looking on and having [pleasure] from this gathering tonight.”

An hour into the evening, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Levi’s grandfather, took the microphone and spoke of his deep personal pain.

“In my life I have never seen such an outpouring of love,” Kotlarsky said, his voice breaking. “You’ll never know what this means to us, because there are no words… This is not an easy day.”

Yet, he announced, the resolve of his daughter and son-in-law to move forward is unshakable.

More than 500 people turned out for the dinner. The Wolowiks were observing the traditional mourning customs, known as shiva, at their Woodmere home. (Photo: Yosef Lewis)
More than 500 people turned out for the dinner. The Wolowiks were observing the traditional mourning customs, known as shiva, at their Woodmere home. (Photo: Yosef Lewis)

Noting that the event was taking place in a year of hakhel, a once-in-seven-years occurrence that was marked during the time of the Holy Temple by a gathering of men, women and children, Kotlarsky told the crowd that the Wolowiks wanted the event to not only be joyous, but to also be an impetus for increased Jewish unity in the community.

The rabbi, who serves as chairman of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, recalled that in the days following the 1988 passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, the Rebbe encouraged his followers not to cancel their previously-scheduled celebrations.

His voice reaching a crescendo, the departed boy’s grandfather continued: “I’m making a declaration here tonight,” he said. “We will not be deterred! In the face of tragedy we will persevere. The Rebbe never let us take a step back. We will build a larger building. Our programs will flourish more.

“Tonight’s program should be full of happiness,” he emphasized, “the opposite of what we endured today. Everyone should be joyous. [As the Talmud says,] ‘Joy breaks through all boundaries.’ ”

After “hearing the Rebbe’s timeless message to us all, the atmosphere changed completely,” said Werner.

Charged with a renewed mission, the crowd enjoyed the music and the tribute videos. But the highlight of the evening was a round of traditional Chasidic dancing.

“We danced like we never danced before,” said Faivish Pewzner. “And I mean that everyone danced. With true joy. And at the end, we were all reinvigorated.”

While attendees had originally feared that the dinner would serve as a painful reminder of a deep scar in the community, afterwards, recalled Leah Muller, “people said that this was the most wonderful experience. There was so much unity.”

And instead of honoring the end of a young boy’s short life, said Faivish Pewzner, the dinner was “a means to continue his life.”

During the dinner, attendees filled out cards with pledges of good deeds in memory of Levi. After the event, the honorees joined Rabbi Meir and Hadassah Geisinsky, the youth directors at Chabad of the Five Towns, to deliver the pledges to the Wolowiks.

“The family appeared to derive comfort from it,” said Werner. “The dinner turned out to be a positive experience for everyone, instead of a depressing one.”

“Levi was a gift to our community for these past 10 years,” added an emotional Werner. “This was a night to celebrate his short and special life.”