Chabad House files plans for $5M project for new Jewish student center; rabbi says local hatred and negativity hitting new highs

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Logos for KU Chabad are shown on the organization's Jewish student center at 1201 W. 19th Street on Dec. 5, 2023.

For nearly 20 years, the KU Chabad House, on the southern edge of the university’s campus, has been a student refuge — complete with chicken soup.

Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel talks of how Jewish students at KU, a distinct minority, often are far from home when they experience a piece of college life that creates a need for some comforts of home.

Enter, quite literally, the Chabad House, which has crammed itself into a converted duplex at 1201 W. 19th St. since its existence.

“No. 1, we are a space dedicated to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Tiechtel said. “They can come in anytime for a hug, a one-on-one conversation, chicken soup if they are sick.”

These days, the chicken soup line may come with a familiar refrain — make it a double.

“In my 18 years on campus, I have never before experienced this level of hatred and negativity,” Tiechtel said of rising local tensions related to the Israeli-Hamas conflict in the Middle East.

It is with that backdrop that KU Chabad has filed plans with the city to build a larger house on its 19th Street property to provide more refuge and greater comforts. Plans have been filed at City Hall to demolish the old duplex property on the site and replace it with a new 7,200 square foot building that will be about 60% larger than the existing space.

The project isn’t a direct reaction to the current conflict or the rising antisemitism that has been reported across the country. Plans to expand the Chabad House have been in the works for years, and were slowed by the pandemic, Tiechtel said.

But certainly, the conflict serves as a reminder of why such spaces are important. A prominent feature of the new building will be a large lounge area.

“It is not a commercial space,” Tiechtel said. “It is a place where students come together, and gather as family.

“The Jewish community is a minority on campus. It is so important for those who are a minority to have a space where they know they can go and feel embraced by their culture and traditions.”

Tiechtel said the project — which also will involve demolishing the duplex property next door at 1103 W. 19th Street — will be designed to look like a large home.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Plans call for the current KU Chabad house to be demolished to make way for a new Jewish student center. The green duplex in the background also would be demolished to provide space for the new center.

“We will be working really hard to get that residential feel,” Tiechtel said. “That is what students are craving.”

Food also is a frequent craving, and Tiechtel said the new center will have a much larger, commercial grade kosher kitchen, which will be the only one of its kind in Lawrence. That will allow the center to continue its weekly offering of a student meal on Saturdays as part of the center’s Sabbath services, and also might allow the center to do even more with food.

The property already is zoned for neighborhood religious uses, thus the project only needs some design and site plan approvals from the city. Tiechtel said demolition work could begin as soon as this summer, with an opening perhaps coming as soon as mid-2025.

KU Chabad, which is a separate entity from the university, has started the quiet phase of a $5 million capital campaign to fund the project, Tiechtel said. The campaign, though, is far from the only pressing matter Tiechtel has on his agenda.

He said KU Jewish students are in particular need of caring right now. Tiechtel said local Jewish students are dealing with some hatred on social media, and several of the protests or demonstrations on campus have been upsetting as well.

Some protests surrounding the war have centered on the way the conflict is unfolding, with large amounts of civilian casualties inflicted by Israeli forces in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Tiechtel said the loss of innocent lives on both sides is cause for deep mourning. But he said some protests on campus have failed to condemn Hamas’ October attacks into Israel that left more than 1,400 Israeli civilians dead and many others brutalized.

The executive board of the union representing KU graduate teaching assistants issued a statement condemning the existence of Israel in the days following the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, while not condemning the Hamas attacks. In early November, Lawrence city commissioners heard from a crowd of commenters who largely condemned Israel’s actions in the war while often saying little about Hamas’ attacks.

Those type of protests have been distressing to members of the KU Jewish community, Tiechtel said.

“There are protests that publicly celebrate Hamas and publicly refer to Israel as a genocide . . . How are Jewish people supposed to feel?” Tiechtel said.

Tiechtel said there are Jewish students who now are seeking to hide signs of their Jewish identity, which has rarely been an issue in the nearly two decades that Tiechtel has served as a rabbi in the Lawrence community.

“We definitely are dealing with a lot of negativity on campus, which makes this project even more important because students need a place to go where they know they will be safe and embraced,” Tiechtel said. “Unfortunately, there is a very strong element of fear that I haven’t seen here before.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A sign for the KU Chabad house is pictured on Dec. 5, 2023.


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