Drexel University’s Chabad will soon have a new, bigger home, thanks to the largesse of a pair of recent grads whose startup has made it big.
Rafael Ilishayev and Yakir Gola are Drexel alumni who spent time at Drexel’s Chabad as undergraduates. They’re also the founders of goPuff, the app-driven startup that aims to make convenience store shopping even more convenient by delivering everyday sundries and snack foods to your door.
It was widely reported in January that goPuff received a commitment of at least $750 million in funding from Japanese venture capital firm SoftBank. While an investment of that size brings pressure and accountability, it also allows the co-CEOs to give back at a young age to those who supported them when their idea was little more than an inspired business plan scrawled on the back of an Intro to Business syllabus.
“Yakir and I are honored to give back to a community that strengthened our values and gave so much to us. We are passionate about supporting students whenever we can and contributing to the success of the Drexel Chabad,” Ilishayev said via email.
Drexel’s Chabad has used the money to buy the property adjacent to its current home on Drexel’s campus, which is at 3507 Baring St. And while the exact amount gifted has not been disclosed, the newly acquired property was appraised by the city at nearly $1 million earlier this year, per The Triangle, Drexel’s student newspaper.
Plans to suit the property to Chabad’s purposes are still in preliminary stages, said Rabbi Chaim Goldstein, the co-director of Drexel’s Chabad. According to Goldstein, buying the property was just the first step in what he says could be a $5-$6 million project.
Though he’d love to have the new building open by fall 2021, Goldstein said it’s way too early to make any definitive pronouncements.
“There’s quite a big project ahead of us. We may end up tearing down the building and starting from scratch—that’s how extensive the work is going to be,” said Goldstein who hopes to raise more money to make Chabad’s and the student community’s ambitious plans for the building a reality. “We’re still working on dedications. We hope to be able to have people donate and dedicate a room or a plaque, or something like that, in the new house.”
In the meantime, Chabad has enlisted the help of Drexel architecture students to consult on the design and assist with these questions of renovation versus knockdown. Feedback from Chabad’s active student community and the myriad roles they see the house serving will play a big role in shaping what the new physical embodiment of Drexel Chabad will become.
“We just had a group of students cast votes for what they want to see in the new building, and a lot of students pitched in with their ideas,” Goldstein said. “We’re very happy to hear what students have to say because this is for them — we want this to be for the students and by the students.”
While nothing is set in stone, expect to see a dining space large enough to accommodate “at least 100, maybe more,” a synagogue, a full library, a lounge space and game room for students and temporary accommodations for alumni and Shabbat guests.
Also on the wish list: “student housing on the upper floors, a kosher café to accommodate the kosher needs on campus and maybe even a rooftop — you know, to hang out.”
The gift comes at a time when those at Drexel say they’ve been feeling a growing Jewish presence on campus and an increased involvement by that Jewish population in the university’s Jewish life.
“Over the years that we’ve been here, the Jewish student community has been growing, thank God, as well as our own family — we also live in the house, by the way,” Goldstein said. “As time went on, both of those aspects grew, the needs grew, and the plan is that the next door property will be the Chabad house and this will remain our own home.”
Both Ilishayev and Gola were involved in campus Jewish life, said Goldstein, who recalled meeting Ilishayev on campus one Rosh Hashanah when he (Goldstein) was walking around the center of campus blowing the shofar.
“The first time (Ilishayev) came to our new house (the current house) was when we had an event called pickle making — he loved it and we became friends,” Goldstein said. “He actually joined our Sinai Scholars class and was very involved.”
Drexel’s Chabad may have received the goPuff duo’s largest gift to date, but it is just one of several beneficiaries of a recent philanthropic streak. They’ve donated to establish a scholarship in entrepreneurship at Drexel and have contributed to Chabad Young Philly’s new building project at 16th and Lombard streets.
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