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Mr. Yoni Nierenberg

18 April 2024

When Jewish students enter a university today, they can be virtually assured that they will find a Chabad House on campus – that they will be welcomed into a warm, inclusive Jewish atmosphere, invited for Shabbat and holiday meals, and offered Torah classes. It is hard to imagine that this was not always the case.

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This story goes back to before I was born. In the early 1960s, my father – Dr. Harold (Tzvi) Nierenberg – served as the dean of Long Island University, and although he was not a chasid, he was selected by the Rebbe to head up a revolutionary new outreach initiative.

How did this come about?

At that time, it was unusual for an academic to be an Orthodox Jew. And my father was not only Torah observant but also deeply involved in the Jewish community. He founded the first Orthodox synagogue in our town – North Belmore, Long Island – and he made it a point to reach out to Jewish students on campus. It was through one of those students that he was introduced to Rabbi Leibel Alevsky, the coordinator of programs for the Lubavitch Youth Organization, and Rabbi Alevsky, in turn, introduced him to the Rebbe.

My father immediately recognized that the Rebbe was a holy man – a tremendous tzaddik and a tremendous spiritual leader – and also that he was an incredible strategist. And I believe that this is what forged the connection between them. Although my father was an academic – he got his Ph.D. from Columbia University – he had a keen business sense, and he understood the role that visionary strategy plays in the success of any enterprise.

My father’s work with Lubavitch led to the formation of the College and University Council, which my father was appointed to chair because he best fit the Rebbe’s requirements. As I recently learned, the Rebbe wrote at the time:

“Regarding [appointing] a chairman, it depends on the kabalos ol [i.e., the commitment to Torah] of the candidate. [He must be someone for whom] it is a given that our holy Torah is above science and the like. In other words, [he must be] someone who can be a full member of the Lubavitch Youth Organization.”

My father outwardly looked like a professor – he wore Brooks Brothers suits, rather than long coats and black hats. But his values ran deeper than his clothes. He never lost sight of what the Torah demanded of him. Of course, there were corporate events and academic events that he had to attend, but never on Shabbat. You would always find him sitting at the table Friday night, learning the Talmud. So even though he was immersed in academics, he always kept G-d and His Torah front and center in his life.

Thus, he was exactly the person the Rebbe was looking for.

As chairman of the College and University Council, my father reached out to deans at universities far and wide, informing them of a pilot program called “The Encounter with Chabad” which had been successfully tested over a three-year period at venues such as University of Maryland, Penn State University, Brown University, Columbia and others. This program attracted Jewish students who lacked a religious education, but who were in search of their roots. And my father appealed to the deans to help these kids, as he wrote, “rekindle the innate spark of Jewish commitment that lies within the hearts of our youth.”

In addition, my father sent a letter to each student who participated in “The Encounter with Chabad,” in an effort to connect him or her to a regional Chabad office, where they could continue to learn more, if they so chose.

The response was overwhelming, and I have no idea how my father – with all his responsibilities as dean – handled all the letters and calls he received. Of course, eventually, as Chabad Houses were founded on the college campuses, there were many emissaries to take on these tasks.

I was born in 1967, when these efforts were in full swing, so I did not know much about it all until my father took me to a farbrengen on the occasion of the Rebbe’s 80th birthday, three days before Passover of 1982. I was fifteen at the time, and I began asking lots of questions about my father’s relationship with the Rebbe and I learned about it bit by bit.

At that farbrengen, we were invited to speak with the Rebbe, and the first question he asked of my father was: “How is Binyamin doing?

It seems that, in addition to organizational issues, my father had also brought personal issues to the Rebbe. One of these was his concern as how to maintain a close link with my older brother Binyamin, who was forging his own path in life. The Rebbe remembered that from years ago and asked about it first thing.

When this issue first came up, the Rebbe recommended that my father invite Binyamin for the Passover Seder. He didn’t say “one of the holidays” – he specified the Passover Seder. When my father expressed his concern that my brother would drive on the holiday, the Rebbe advised that he also invite my brother to sleep over.

This suggestion of the Rebbe proved to be very wise because the family really bonded around the Seder table – which gave off a holy aura – and my parents were so very happy to have their oldest son there.

My father always had a special affinity for Passover. In fact, the kids in our extended family called him “Uncle Matzah” because he baked his own matzahs and distributed them to everyone. The Rebbe must have sensed how important Passover was to my father when he advised him that this was the way to maintain a bond with his son, who was on his own path out in the world: “If you bring him home for Passover, you’ll be nurturing his connection to Judaism.”

This experience resonated so strongly with my brother that ten or fifteen years later, it was one of the core elements that brought him to re-embrace Jewish observance. To this day, Passover continues to be very important to him and to our entire family, and both my brother and I, as well as our sister Chana, maintain a close connection to Chabad. Today, this connection is continuing with our children, especially my son Noach who loves Chabad and stories of the Rebbe, and we have my father and the Rebbe to thank for that.

When our father passed away in 2005, many people reached out to us to let us know the impact that he’d had on their lives. “I got through university as a Jew because of your father,” they would say, or “your father connected me with my Jewish roots.” It was very gratifying to hear about my father’s work and to consider the exponential growth that his efforts led to – because of the Rebbe’s vision.   

Mr. Yoni Nierenberg lives in Cedarhurst, Long Island, where he works as a corporate strategist in the tech, real estate and healthcare industries. He was interviewed in June, 2023.