Could I create a library to serve as my son’s living legacy?
Name: Chanie Wolowik
Location: Five Towns, NY
Dream: Build a community library and family center
Growing up in Crown Heights during the prime years of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s leadership, my family and I enjoyed the excitement of being at the heart of the action and the beauty of sharing it with others.
On Friday and Sunday afternoons my friends and I would go out of Crown Heights and ask people on street corners if they were Jewish, distributing Shabbos candles if they were, and explaining the sheva mitzvos bnei Noach if they weren’t.
My parents, Rabbi Moshe and Rivka Kotlarsky, trained us in giving. We had a bedroom but rarely slept in it; the guests got our rooms, and we camped out in the basement on mattresses. My father, who is vice chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, the central educational arm of the Chabad network, and chairman of the Conference of Chabad Shluchim, traveled the world frequently, and he and my mother always made us feel lucky to be involved in such meaningful work. The Yiddishkeit I knew wasn’t about restrictions, but about privilege and joy and connection.
I spent my summers volunteering in Chabad centers, visiting Arizona, Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities. When I was older, I went abroad as well, running camps in South Africa, Brazil, and Moldova. With that kind of background, it was a foregone conclusion that my husband, Zalman, and I would choose to go on shlichus.
When we got married, there were three places looking for a new Chabad house: Berlin, Guatemala, and New York’s Five Towns. Our oldest was eight months old when we set up shop in the Five Towns. We started right away with a Shabbos minyan, quickly followed by programs for the entire community, everything from the ubiquitous outdoor menorah lightings to a bat mitzvah program that brings together girls from public schools and day schools.
Today, we’re proud to have programs for every age, from a weekly senior’s club to our sought-after preschool, Gan Chamesh. We also have a Friendship Circle chapter (Chabad’s program for children with special needs and their families), Hebrew School, CTeen, and CTeen Junior divisions. Along with our formal programs, we regularly have dozens of guests at our Shabbos table, and 100 or more in our succah.
I love the cooking and hosting, and my kids do, too. Once, someone asked my oldest, then five or six, if he also wanted to be a Chabad shaliach when he grows up. Proudly, he answered, “I already am a shaliach!” Due to coronavirus, things are quiet now, and my kids keep asking when we’ll be able to have guests again.
Back in 2009, the run-up to our annual dinner was ordinary. My oldest had just started mesivta in Detroit, and baby Shalom was a happy 11-month-old. The kids were excited about the dinner. It’s their moment for nachas, displaying their pride in their contributions.
Friday afternoon found me and a friend in the kitchen, wrapping up the seating charts while supervising traffic in and out of the shower. It was a regular, peaceful Erev Shabbos, with no hint of what was to come. On Shabbos morning, I groggily pulled myself out of bed to get the kids ready for shul. Going into the boys’ room, I gently reached out to rouse Levi, my nine-year-old.
My kids say I screamed.
“Zalman,” I called out to my husband. “Call Hatzolah! We don’t have Levi!” Cognizant that my other kids were in the room — and had been all morning — I knew they would never forget that moment and fought to maintain my composure.
Shabbos was a blur. The police came and stationed guards at our door and Levi’s bedroom — it could have been a crime scene, after all — and then, of course, concerned neighbors and friends began stopping by.
Amid all the chaos, my five-year-old son announced he was tired and wanted to lie down. In the context of the startling tragedy, the uncharacteristic nap set off alarm bells. I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life, and took my son to be checked out at the hospital, leaving behind Levi and my loved ones. I spent the longest five hours of my life in the hospital until we were cleared to go home.
The levayah, with more people than I’d ever seen in my life, was held on Sunday morning. And our annual Chabad dinner went on without us Sunday evening.
During the week of shivah, one person after another told me that I must do something in Levi’s memory, and they even helpfully suggested ideas. “Think of something while it’s still fresh, while people are moved!” they said. But I wasn’t in that place. I just wanted my child.
Then someone mentioned a library, and that touched me. Levi wasn’t such a big reader, but he loved writing, and it seemed to me that libraries are all about encouraging self-expression. And I’d been in the community long enough to know that it could really use a Jewish library.
As soon as shivah was over, I decided to hit the ground running. At Levi’s shloshim, we launched our library campaign. Soon after our first announcement, a local woman, Lisa Hawk, emailed me to say she’d also always nurtured a similar dream, and thankfully she came on board as my codirector. We raised seed money, drew up plans, and the Levi Yitzchak Family Center and Library opened on what would have been Levi’s 11th birthday.
When I advise people who undertake similar projects, I always tell them, it’s a great idea, but don’t do it like I did! It was a major production, and I didn’t sleep for months, with my brain constantly in overdrive. A 26-foot mitzvah train was built, a puppet theater modeled after the Jubilee Synagogue in Prague, and a play area set up, besides, of course, our collection of over 15,000 books.
In my excitement, I got ahead of myself. I had furniture before we had a location, and it was a miracle that everything fit. With the help of local volunteers, we formulated a careful policy of which books we’d accept. We still spend much time vetting books for suitability.
The library and family center was an immediate hit, and with the devotion of Bracha Kramer Margolin, many programs were started. It’s simply the biggest nachas to observe. Grandparents finally had a beautiful recreational activity with their grandkids that wasn’t commercial; chavrusas learn together there; fathers and mothers enjoy visitation in an inviting atmosphere; kids who can’t afford after-school activities gather to play. Our lovely volunteers made many programs possible, like Mommy and Me classes, shiurim, and more. Weekly, in partnership with Merkos Suite 302, we ship 30–40 boxes of books to Chabad shluchim in remote areas.
Keeping the library afloat is always a struggle, especially now that COVID has canceled our annual fundraiser, which we’re now replacing with a virtual auction, which will be drawn on Zos Chanukah.
Today, the library is Levi’s living legacy. A showcase in the lobby displays things that were dear to his heart: his trophies, his journal, his snow globe collection, stamp collection, and seforim. He was a regular kid, a precious kid. Through the learning that happens at his library, and the knowledge gained from all the books being read, his neshamah can keep on giving.
My earliest dream: I always knew I wanted to run a Chabad house, but had no idea where. I have cousins all over the world — Argentina, Pittsburgh, Kansas City…. I didn’t know I’d end up so close to home.
If I could choose a superpower: A good memory, to be able to keep track of everything I learn and hear. I used to have a fantastic memory, but I find I don’t retain as much anymore.
If I had unlimited resources to pursue an unrealistic dream: To me, nothing is unrealistic. If it seems unrealistic, I try to make it possible. One thing I’d like, now that our area boasts over 70 shuls, would be a super-center where everyone in the community could come together and learn from each other.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 718)
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