An arson fire on Aug. 25 may have destroyed the home of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life at the University of Delaware, but the Jewish, university and area communities are trying to turn the tragedy into a positive.
“We’re super surprised by the outpouring of love we’ve gotten,” said junior Grace Hollander of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, who is one of the organizers of a GoFundMe campaign by Students of Chabad UD to rebuild the Chabad center.
In little more than a day, the campaign raised $300,000 — from more than 6,000 donors — toward its $1 million goal and, as of the afternoon of Sept. 1, $499,074 had been raised through 8,700 donors.
“It’s an incredible sign,” said Chabad Rabbi Avremel Vogel, who has received messages of support from every faith-based community in the area. “It shows the world that there’s much more love than hate.”
The fire in Newark was first reported about 11 p.m. on Aug. 25 and it took about 45 firefighters to get the blaze under control in 40 minutes, according to Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael Chionchio. Nobody was hurt in the fire, and the building wasn’t occupied at the time Chionchio’s office ruled the fire an arson the next day, first estimating the damages at $75,000, but later increasing that amount to $200,000.
Chionchio said while the fire appears deliberately set — details can’t be released because an investigation is ongoing — there are no indications for now that the incident was a hate crime.
Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia Regional Director Shira Goodman said her organization will be monitoring the incident.
“It was very upsetting to the community, whether or not it was a hate crime,” she said.
Vogel said he lived in the small house until about a year ago and moved to a neighboring residence, whose backyard touches the Chabad house.
“We didn’t hear anything,” he said. “By the time I was notified, the fire was already out.”
The fire got some national attention from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
The incident “is deeply disturbing — as an alum of @UDelaware and as an American,” read a tweet Aug. 27 from Biden’s Twitter account. “We need a full and swift investigation into what happened Tuesday night. With anti-Semitism on the rise across the country, we all have a moral obligation to speak out and give hate no safe harbor.”
Hollander said the lofty fundraising goal is to make the Chabad building, which was cramped, bigger and better than before to serve more people.
About 100 to 200 students regularly visit the Chabad building, with more visiting occasionally.
“The little blue house means so much to the students who found inspiration, community, connection, and even love there. Yes, many marriages started out by meeting each other at the little blue house,” the GoFundMe introduction reads. “It wasn’t fancy, it was well worn, lived in, and much loved. It was theirs, and the students thronged there every Friday night.”
Aside from spending every Shabbat there, Hollander spent time preparing food, helping during holidays and participating in educational and freshmen programs.
“It’s just a huge part of my life,” she said.
The Newark Post said there are 2,250 Jewish undergraduates at the university, which is about 13% of the undergrad population.
Hollander said she’s never experienced negativity or anti-Semitism during her time on campus.
The Delaware fire isn’t the only one involving a Chabad in recent weeks.
The Chabad Jewish Center in Portland, Oregon, caught fire twice the previous week, although the cause of the blazes is still unknown, JTA reported.
Anyone with information regarding the Delaware fire is asked to call the fire marshal at 302-323-5375 or Delaware Crime Stoppers at 1-800-TIP-3333. PJC
This piece originally appeared in the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.