It’s been years in the making, a decade-long journey of fundraising, land swaps, planning, and construction, but finally a crowd of 600, comprised of staff, students, community members, and dignitaries, turned out to celebrate the grand opening of the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House at Rutgers University.
At 40,000 square feet, the $20 million structure in the center of College Avenue on the Wilf Family Campus in New Brunswick shares the honor with the University of Wisconsin of being the largest Hillel facility in the nation. Also, according to Hillel International, Rutgers has the largest number of Jewish students of any U.S. university, with 6,400 undergraduate and 2,000 graduate students.
During the April 2 ceremony, Hillel International president Eric Fingerhut praised both Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer, whom he called a “a leader of the Hillel International movement,” and Rutgers President Robert Barchi, “a source of strength of the Rutgers Jewish community.”
Drawing an analogy between the upcoming Passover holiday and what the new building represents, Fingerhut noted that Hillel’s goal is to build an “enduring” commitment to Judaism and the broader Jewish community.
He recited, in Hebrew and English, the verse from the Haggadah that each Jew must regard themselves as if they personally were redeemed from slavery in Egypt, a requirement that pushes children to ask about the meaning of the exodus. Hillel, he said, seeks to answer those questions and in doing so builds future community leaders community who “understand how to fit in with the Jewish people.”
Mark Wilf reflected on the 10-year process, noting that of the numerous longstanding business partnerships that he and the Halpern/Stein families have had, none were as important as this one, because of “the meaningful Jewish experience” and “enduring commitment to the Jewish future.” (Eva Halpern’s first husband’s last name was Stein; she was widowed at a young age and later married Arie Halpern.)
Audrey and Zygi Wilf and Jane and Mark Wilf kicked off the capital and endowment campaign with a $2 million gift and the five Halpern children made a $3 million gift in memory of their parents, Holocaust survivors from Poland.
Barchi told the crowd the new structure was more than just a building, but rather a place where Jewish students can identify with their culture at a time when it can be difficult to be a Jew on campus.
“It’s very important students have a place to go where they feel comfortable and protected,” he said.
He also applauded Hillel’s willingness work with the university by swapping land and coordinating plans as part of the school’s $330 million College Avenue redevelopment, which includes the new School of Arts and Science building, honors dorm, and “the yard,” which includes open space, a large video screen, and fresh kosher food for purchase.
Among the dignitaries in attendance was New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who told NJJN he viewed Hillel as “a celebration of Jewish life,” but also as a “refuge” at a time when students at campuses across the country are being targeted by the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
While addressing the crowd from the steps of the new building, the senator said his day was filled with Jewish causes: before coming to Rutgers, he visited Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, then met with Jewish students to discuss the BDS movement. He “couldn’t think of a better way to end the day” than at the dedication, he said. Menendez added, to resounding applause, “I believe the BDS movement is bigoted and anti-Semitic and should be condemned.”
The building, he said, was extraordinary, a place where Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations could be held and where kindness, generosity, community service, and other Jewish values could be nourished.
“One of the things about the Jewish community I’ve always admired is its values and commitment to tikkun olam [repairing the world] and engaging with others,” said Menendez. “I can’t think of a community that is more engaged.”
Rutgers Hillel, founded in 1943, started in a small, rented spaces above stores on George Street in downtown New Brunswick before moving to the Douglass campus in 1971. Then for 17 years, it rented space from New Brunswick Theological Seminary at 93 College Avenue until the building was demolished approximately three years ago, and Hillel was forced to move to various spaces around the university while the new building was under construction.
The New Brunswick Development Corp. (DEVCO) spearheaded a partnership between Hillel, the university, the Theological Seminary, and the city that gave Hillel the opportunity to switch the planned building from the site of a former fraternity house on the corner of Bishop Place and George Street to its central location on College Avenue.
The 2013 land swap with the university had been termed by DEVCO president Christopher Paladino a “unique private-public partnership,” through which the project was awarded $33 million in tax credits by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. That allowed Hillel to move forward and increase the size and scope of the building, and ground was broken in November 2014.
Getraer recalled at the dinner following the dedication ceremony that when he interviewed for his job 16 years ago, he looked around at “the decrepit, falling apart, but lovable” 93 College Ave. site, and said to the board, “I think we might need some renovations here.”
“Little did I know it would consume my life for the next 16 years,” said Getraer, citing the old Jewish saying, “Man plans and God laughs.” He then quoted the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Getraer thanked board member Lanny Livingston of East Brunswick who volunteered “thousands of hours” to help design the building.
“We had a dream of a warm, welcoming building,” he said. “She made it come true,” he said of the interior designer.
The building features a fireplace where students can relax; conference rooms and lecture halls; prayer spaces for Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox students; a rooftop Holocaust memorial garden; a dedicated office for its Center for Israel Engagement; study cubicles; a kitchen; a large event hall; and a room with a full bathroom to accommodate Shabbat guests.
The Halperns lived in Elizabeth and Springfield, and Arie was the founder of Woodbridge-based Atlantic Realty. Both their first spouses died young, and when the Halperns remarried, their respective families — Eva’s sons Henry and Ben, and Arie’s three daughters, Bella, Shelley, and Nanette — blended together as one.