chabad construction

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Chabad of North Phoenix Rabbi Mendy Levertov and his wife, Leah, are looking forward to making their Chabad center better suited to their needs.

They’re considering expanding the sanctuary, upgrading the kitchen and, maybe, adding sensory and art rooms for the kids and adults who are part of Friendship Circle, which supports people with special needs.

After about 10 years of renting their building, they closed on the property the last week of October.

“When you can give your community and your program a sense of permanency, it’s the right thing to do,” Mendy said.

The real estate transaction represents just one of dozens of investments by Chabad in new buildings or in renovating and expanding existing properties.

While many Jewish institutions are unsure about what the future holds for their physical spaces after a year and a half of largely digital engagement — and after decades of declining synagogue membership for Judaism’s largest American denominations — Chabad is betting on its capacity to attract large numbers of people to its centers.

The movement has embarked on at least $137 million in real estate projects since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to numbers compiled by and reviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rabbi Zalman Levertov, the leader of Chabad of Arizona, said he isn’t sure of the exact figure local Chabads have invested in real estate projects since last March, but there are several such projects in the works.

Mendy said Chabad of North Phoenix’s building cost $2 million. He secured a mortgage of just over $1 million, and raised about $700,000 in the three months the deal was in escrow.

When the building became available to buy, it was a no-brainer, he said.

“Judaism is a face-to-face religion,” Mendy said. “You need that sense of individual connection, specifically for Friendship Circle.”

The pandemic made many people long for meaningful connection, especially after being isolated or limited to virtual meetings for so many months, he said, noting he is “setting the groundwork” for when people are ready to indulge their need for in-person get-togethers.

Zalman agreed. “Our job is to reach out to every single Jew. We still need to focus on that even if people don’t want to come,” he said.

When the time comes, Chabad will be ready to host in-person study sessions, prayer and gatherings — be they indoors or outdoors, Zalman said. “Many people are craving to be with each other rather than to be by themselves,” he said. “Some people are sick of virtual services or study.”

Chabad of Arizona’s Aleph Bet Preschool and Kindergarten is expanding faster than expected, prompting more capital projects than anticipated. Rabbi Dov Levertov, who directs the school with his wife, said the preschool’s growth has been “slow and steady” for the past few years. He and his wife planned to convert two rows of office space inside the Chabad-Lubavitch of Arizona facility into classrooms, but now they can’t do it fast enough.

In the 2019-2020 academic year, there were fewer than 70 kids enrolled. But in the current 2021-2022 academic year, there are 80 kids enrolled, and Dov has had to turn families away.

He said the school is in the final permit and building stages of a prefab classroom building, which will be added on-site for a cost of at least $300,000 to supplement its larger expansion plans.

“The expansion is not happening fast enough and the growth is happening a little faster with the pandemic and people moving in, so we had to fast-track a little bit,” he said.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was a strong advocate of buying over renting, Zalman said. “Also the Rebbe wanted that we should expand in a way that you’re not thinking just of now, you’re thinking of the future,” he said.

Chabad of the East Valley Rabbi Mendy Deitsch is about halfway through raising $500,000 to build a mikvah on the property. East Valley residents currently have to drive about 30 minutes to get to a mikvah.

“As a result of the pandemic, there was a limit on the availability, or there were time constraints, travel constraints and we felt that our community was asking for it; people need it,” Deitsch said.

A 30-minute drive to a mikvah is difficult during the week, and “impossible” on Shabbat, he said. “They wait, or some people go to a hotel — it’s a major inconvenience.”

He estimates the mikvah is about two years out from being built. He’s in the early stages of the design process, and hopes to break ground in about eight months.

“It’s definitely supporting current needs, but also we feel that this will serve those who are moving to the area and looking for more Jewish infrastructure,” he said.

In Tucson, Rabbi Yossie Shemtov led the purchase of a $1 million building for their Lamplighter Chabad Day School of Tucson. “We are now investing another half a million in renovating it.”

Chabad centers around the country have been investing in capital projects and scooping up buildings, largely funded by donations.

“They represent people from large donors to large numbers of small donors like college students who are committed to supporting Jewish life and programs that inspire them with whatever they can based on their means,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesperson.

Even before the pandemic growth spurt, Chabad had already engaged some 37% of American Jewish adults in activities, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, and trends point to continued growth.

Over the past 20 years, the number of Chabad synagogues in the United States has nearly tripled, reaching 1,036 in 2020, according to a tally by Joel Kotkin, a Chapman University professor who studies demographic trends, and independent researcher Edward Heyman. Over that same period, the overall number of synagogues declined by 29%.

While many Chasidic groups are growing primarily through procreation, Chabad, focused as it is on outreach, appears to be picking up a significant chunk of the Jews who have disaffiliated from the Reform or Conservative movements or who have never had much of an institutional affiliation to begin with. In its recent survey, Pew estimated that among Chabad participants, 24% are Orthodox, while 26% are Reform, 27% are Conservative and 16% don’t identify with any particular branch of Judaism. JN

Additional reporting from JTA.