Chabad on Campus house dedication marks end of first round of renovations

Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As the springtime snow melted away outside, a mix of joy and sadness pervaded those gathered inside at 7018 Forsyth Boulevard. To be sure, Sunday afternoon was a time of celebration.

The guest of honor was the only thing missing.

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“This building is Barry’s building,” Ronald Rettner told a crowd of dozens. “I could envision him personally welcoming every student to the Chabad House. You can be sure Barry would have taken the time to get to know every student.”

Sadly, Barry Levites will never have that chance. The real estate icon passed away unexpectedly last year during a vacation in Jerusalem. But Levites’s legacy will live on in a former apartment building a stone’s throw from the Washington University campus. Dedicated with an array of speeches, music and food last weekend, the Barry H. Levites Chabad House received financial support from Rettner who wanted it named to honor his longtime friend and business partner, the CEO of a New York-based realty company.

Many notable figures from the Jewish and general community were on hand for the event, which officially begins the next phase of life for the two-story structure, the object of an extensive renovation that converted the bottom floor’s two apartments into a gathering space for future events. The edifice’s 4,400 square feet was also supplemented by the revamp, which added usable space in the basement.

“This is a platform. This is a hub. This is the center of the sun as it were from where the rays shine out to the entire campus and young adult community,” Rabbi Hershey Novack, director of Chabad on Campus-Rohr Center for Jewish Life, told the Jewish Light as the event drew to a close. “This provides us with a stable facility. This provides us with a place to host learning and Shabbat services and dinners.”

Novack said the building had been purchased several years ago but plans for the facelift had seen delays due to the recession.

Rettner said the partnership that would eventually expedite the project came together shortly after Levites’s death when a conversation between Novack and Rettner turned to real estate.

University City Mayor Shelley Welsch was on hand to speak during the event. She thanked the Jewish campus organization for its commitment to University City.

“I think building community happens in many ways and I think Chabad shows the ways in which that happens,” she said. “I appreciate the effort to build a home for those on the Wash U campus and other campuses around the region who have chosen to make this part of the country their home for four, five or six years.”

Themes of home and family came up commonly during the proceedings.

“Truthfully, it should really be called the Barry H. Levites Chabad Home rather than a house,” Rabbi Yosef Landa, regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, told the guests. “It’s a lot truer to the nature and roles of Chabad on Campus that this be a Jewish home away from home for students at Washington University.”

Landa spoke about the transitional nature of young adulthood, calling Chabad a “threshold institution.”

“We as a community need to be there for them during that period,” he said. “That threshold experience need not be a challenge to their Jewish self-perception. We need to offer social and educational opportunities that help nurture and enhance their Jewish identity and sense of themselves.”

Novack told those assembled that family was a cornerstone of Jewish life. “Who answers the phone at 1 a.m.?” he said. “Who takes care of the needy, the hungry, the stressed out? Family. Chabad is the first line of defense in the campus safety net.”

Risa Zwerling Wrighton, wife of Washington U Chancellor Mark Wrighton, represented the university at the event. Interviewed after her remarks, she noted the vitality of Chabad to the campus community.

“It’s important that the residence halls are great, that the professors are great,” she said, “but students need some place they can go to that speaks to their spiritual life and lets them get away from the dorms. Chabad does that for them. It fills their life and gives them more balance.”

Rettner described Levites as a great friend, talented businessman and tireless worker whose analytical mind and keen intellect had been honed by the discipline required of Jewish learning and study.

“Barry was the big brother I didn’t have,” Rettner told the group. “I will always be indebted for all I learned from him. I was the student, he was the master.”

Levites’s widow, Janice Levites, one of a number of family members in attendence, completed the dedication by tightening the final screw on the mezuzah.

“It’s an amazing event for all of us, very touching, very thrilling and I will never forget it,” she told the Jewish Light afterward. “He would have been so joyous and proud to see this.”

If Carol Iskiwitch is any indication, the campus community will respond just as positively to Levites’s legacy. The 20-year-old Washington University student first became involved with Chabad due to a birthright trip to Israel. Now, with a facility just minutes from her dorm, she said she looks forward to participating in events often. She called the building “fantastic.”

“I was never really involved with campus Jewish life my freshman year,” said the sophomore who is double majoring in psychology and anthropology, “so for me it’s really cool because I finally found a place where I feel a connection to the people and am excited about participating.”