Hoboken Professionals Design, Build Their Own $2 Million Center

A new Chabad House for young professionals in Hoboken and Jersey City, under Rabbi Shmully and Esta Levitin, was planned, fundraised, executed, and built by the very people who attend the shul.

By Nochum Paltiel – Chabad.org

Chabad centers around the world serve a wide array of people. There are centers on campus, serving college students; in remote Himalayan towns, geared towards backpackers; and those in suburbs and cities, big and small, serving the local Jewish community. The past decade or so has seen the proliferation of chapters of Chabad Young Professional, as enterprising Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries have opened centers for the benefit of young Jews living in downtown-like areas, far from traditional Jewish community resources. “CYP” centers continue to witness notable growth, increased engagement and play host to a thriving Jewish social scene.

But while each center is served by a dedicated emissary couple, they are not alone in CYP’s success. In fact, it’s those same “young Jewish professionals” whom they serve who are at the forefront, leading efforts to expand and enhance Jewish life and living in their respective locales.

No place is this more evident than in Hudson County, N.J., where in 2015, Rabbi Shmully and Esta Levitin established Chabad Young Professionals of Hoboken and Jersey City. In a milestone marking a significant moment for their community, this month they unveiled a 4,000-square-foot, $2 million center, which was planned, fundraised, executed, and built by the very people who attend its services.

“There’s a popular myth that young Jews don’t want to be engaged,” Rabbi Levitin told Chabad.org. “But that’s not true. When they are offered an authentic, warm Jewish experience, not only will they step inside a Jewish center, but they will build it.”

On Sunday, May 19, community members joined together to formally inaugurate the gleaming new CYP House. The event honored lead donors Elior Shiloh, Gregory D. Edgell and Andy Antiles, as well as the many others who played an integral role in making the center a reality.

Clear Need For a Permanent Space

Hoboken, N.J., may be known for its stunning waterfront views of Manhattan and vibrant young scene, but its residents have the same needs as any in a fast-paced society: meaning, community and engagement with their past, present and future.

For the thousands of young Jewish professionals who live in the city on the Hudson River and its surrounding areas, the Levitins provide just that. The new center allows them to up their game.

The Levitins moved to New Jersey in 2015 to join Rabbi Moshe and Shaindel Schapiro, who co-direct Chabad-Lubavitch of Hoboken and Jersey City. Their aim was to cultivate a young Jewish professional community where for many decades very little had existed.

Hosting Friday-night Shabbos meals at their small apartment as well as organizing larger events in public spaces was an effective method of connecting with their community, but after a few years, the Levitins realized that their programming was being constrained by the lack of a dedicated space.

“There was a clear need for a permanent space,” the rabbi explained, “one that can serve as a community base, where the young professionals feel they are entering their second home.”

But how to make that dream and need a reality was a problem the rabbi and his wife did not alone have. Community members likewise sensed the need and sprang into action.

Built for the Community by the Community

In 2021, in the throes of the pandemic, more and more people started to crave meaningful connection and community. That meant an increasing number of people were signing up to join the burgeoning Chabad center.

Sensing the opportunity for expansion, the young professionals banded together to raise funds for a $2 million project to purchase and renovate their own space. The new building—designed to feel like a home—spans 4,000 square feet over three floors. The top floor serves as the Levitins’ residence, while 2,600 square feet are dedicated to community space with an extra 1,000-square-foot outdoor area. There is also a hospitality suite which accommodates people who wish to stay for Shabbos and Jewish holidays.

Rabbi Levitin describes his initial apprehension towards the daunting prospect of raising the requisite amount from a young community at the start of their careers but was amazed at the ability of this sector to come together.

“This is a building created for the community by the community,” he said. “Whether it was monetary donations, or network connections or even members rolling up their sleeves and pitching in physically, everyone did their part in whatever way they could.”

An additional benefit from the hands-on involvement was that the project has created a sense of pride and ownership in the space.

Not Always Smooth Sailing

When the Levitins arrived in New Jersey, they said their biggest challenge was “making people aware that there is a community here, and that there is a platform for young Jewish professionals to exit their personal silos and involve themselves with other Jews,” the rabbi said. “But since then, with word of mouth and encouragement from friends, there has been rapid organic growth.”

In fact, community member Alison Gerver talks of challenges from day one.

“There were so many people who slammed the door in [the Levitins’] faces,” she recalled. “People who claimed they were crazy, that there was no young Jewish life here and that a community couldn’t be built.”

But seeing the growth from a few people gathered around the Levitin’s Shabbos table in the early days to the hundreds that come to events now, even some of the naysayers have been turned around.

Step into a Friday night meal in the new building, and you’ll see 50 people on average enjoying the warmth of Shabbos with their peers. Special events regularly bring more than 100 young Jews into the center on a weeknight.

“Now, there are people who just walk off the street and knock on the door because they see the menorah displayed out front and want to get involved,” says Gerver. “We have a home base now, where it is a lot easier to make friends, network and have a supportive community within walking distance of home.”

Safe Haven After Oct. 7

For many Jews around the world, the terrorist attacks that took place in southern Israel on Oct. 7 have magnified the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment across the globe.

“Some people feel abandoned by their former circle of friends and co-workers,” Rabbi Levitin said. “They keep looking for a safe space to come and meet other Jews, realizing they need to be part of a community.”

Indeed, the week following the terrorist attack saw 145 new members sign up for Shabbos dinner. The rabbi says he doesn’t know what they would have done without the space and is grateful to have had the opportunity to accommodate the explosive growth.

“I definitely would not be where I am today in my Jewishness and life in general without the Levitins and this community,” Gerver says.

“Young Jews crave warmth and connection,” said Esta Levitin. “Together we’ve created a space for that here in Hoboken and Jersey City. It’s not really a center, it’s a home.”

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