Early on March 11, a procession of people followed a truck blasting joyous, Jewish music the few blocks from Ross Commons on North 34th Street to the Chabad serving Drexel University on Baring Street, accompanied by dancing, the throwing of candy and a newly written Torah scroll.
Rafael Ilishayev and Yakir Gola, former Drexel students and founders of goPuff, commissioned the Torah for the Chabad House. In a ceremony that day, Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin inked the last words of the scroll, following members of the community who had the opportunity to help inscribe other letters into the Torah.
“We were able to, with God’s help, achieve something and put ourselves in a position to donate a Torah,” Ilishayev said. “This is really just the start for us. We want to make sure that we’re giving back in a very meaningful way.”
Ilishayev, who graduated in 2015, said Chabad was an important part of his and Gola’s Judaism during their college years. Ilishayev’s father and grandfather also both dedicated Torahs to their synagogues, and he thought it was an excellent way to give back.
“The job of our parents and to-be parents is to make sure their kids are better than their parents, that they’re achieving more and they’re doing more,” Ilishayev said. “If you’re just keeping the status quo, that’s not good enough.”
The Torah they donated is a Sephardic style, in keeping with their family heritage, with a hard casing that stands. This is this Chabad House’s first Sephardic Torah, and it joins two others at the center, one of which is on loan.
Ilishayev and Gola gave the opportunity for people to dedicate letters, words, verses, chapters, aliyahs and weekly Torah portions.
The goPuff co-founders met at Drexel, where they both studied business, and connected over similarities in their uncommon childhoods helping their parents run businesses.
During their junior year, they saw a need in the marketplace for more accessible convenience stores and on-demand delivery services. They founded goPuff with this notion and started doing deliveries out of a warehouse.
In the five years since then, the company has grown to 350 employees, with thousands of drivers in cities across the country. The success of goPuff allowed them to commision the Torah for Chabad House.
During their time at Drexel, the two were involved at Chabad as well. Rabbi Chaim Goldstein, co-director of the Chabad House, first met Ilishayev on campus, then reconnected when Ilishayev came to a pickle-making class at Chabad. Ilishayev introduced Gola to Goldstein. After graduation, Ilishayev has remained involved, Goldstein said, by attending Shabbat dinners sometimes and coming to Chabad as a speaker.
A few months ago, Ilishayev told Goldstein that he wanted to donate a Torah. He didn’t hear anything more about it until six weeks ago, when Ilishayev told Goldstein that he had commissioned the Torah, and it would be coming in just a few weeks.
“Torah is the bedrock of our religion,” Goldstein said. “It’s what’s kept us strong throughout all the years. And when we conclude writing a Torah, and we welcome a new Torah into the Jewish people, it’s a sense of really declaring Judaism is alive because the Torah is alive, and we have another Torah that is going to help us stay stronger and grow even greater than before.”
Ilishayev said he sees him and Gola continuing to help the Chabad House with a building expansion and potentially giving to Birthright.
“The No. 1 thing is that we inspire other young people to go out and say that this is something that’s important, and this is something that’s important to give back to, and it’s important to really support Judaism in a big way,” Ilishayev said. “We’re in an age where more and more young Jews are understanding that this is something that’s quintessential to our survival. There’s very few of us, and we need to stick as a unit, and we need to be a support function for one another, and I hope this inspires people for that notion.”