Rutgers Hillel celebrates 75 years

Rutgers Hillel celebrates 75 years

Flagship Jewish center attracts diverse, large numbers of students

Sue Kheel remembers Rutgers Hillel from the 1960s. The Jewish student center was located in a third-floor loft above a store on George Street.

“One of the first places I came to when I came on campus in 1963 was Hillel,” she said. “New Brunswick was in decline. There was racial tumult and urban decay and you didn’t feel safe. But inside Hillel you felt safe.”

More than 50 years later, the student organization is ensconced in the largest Hillel building in the nation located in the heart of campus on College Avenue. To this day, Kheel, a Highland Park resident, maintains her college ties; she cofounded and served several terms as president of the Rutgers Hillel Alumni Association and has served on the board for 40 years. 

Michael Wasserman, also of Highland Park, cofounded the alumni association with Kheel. He attended the university at the same time as she and remains committed to Hillel. For 30 years he served on the board, including as president between 1992-97, and spearheads the legacy program, which encourages charitable bequests. 

On May 6 the two were named honorary directors, a distinction given to only four others in Rutgers Hillel’s 75-year history — Rabbi Julius Funk, the founding executive director who served in the position for 43 years; Philip and Oscar Lax, benefactors who founded the former Hillel building on the Douglass Campus; and Ruth Marcus Patt, Douglass class of 1940, who supported Hillel for decades.

The presentation was made during the annual gala that brought some 300 attendees to the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House to celebrate 75 years of Rutgers Hillel. The brunch raised about $350,000 for programming and operating expenses, according to Barbara Josephs Cohen, senior development executive at Rutgers Hillel.

Kheel, a board member of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, recalled the “great” programming at Hillel during her college years. She said Funk and his wife, Pearl, “were so warm and welcoming you wanted to be there to experience the joy of living Jewishly.” 

In spite of the gritty George Street area, she said the location was ideal in the days when female students could only attend Douglass College since Hillel was positioned halfway between Douglass and Rutgers colleges. 

The Rutgers Hillel Foundation was established in 1943, built on the student-run Hillel Council of Rutgers, which had been founded three years earlier. One of Funk’s first acts was to invite First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillel. She visited January 1944 in a program that drew more than 1,200 people and raised $1.5 million in War Bonds.

In 1971, Hillel moved to a building on Ryders Lane “at the farthest corner of the Douglass Campus,” said Kheel, and the location proved problematic when the university shortly thereafter admitted women to all schools. 

“As soon as they did that the pendulum began to swing and more and more women moved to the College Avenue campus and lived there,” she said, adding that attendance began to drop so precipitously that by the early 1990s, when her daughter attended Rutgers, “they could hardly get a minyan.”

Nevertheless, throughout the period luminaries such as Elie Wiesel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, and Simon Wiesenthal came to speak at Hillel, according to Wasserman.

Funk retired in 1982 and was succeeded by Rabbi Norman Weitzner, who was succeeded in 1995 by Rabbi David Gutterman, who would oversee the historic move to a house on College Avenue rented from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary as well as Hillel’s emergence in the 1990s as an independent organization after almost 50 years as an affiliate of B’nai B’rith.

“In 1996 after we moved we had people in the building on the main campus all the time and attendance at activities increased tremendously,” said Wasserman, a member of Congregation Ahavas Achim. “Prior to that nobody attended an activity before four in the afternoon. After we had people in the building for morning services and into the afternoon and night.”

Hillel’s current executive director, Andrew Getraer, and senior associate director, Rabbi Esther Reed, took over in 2001, ushering in a period of tremendous growth in programming that attracted large numbers of students. 

“Andrew and Esther brought an unbelievable change in the whole atmosphere,” said Kheel. We now have a wide range of programming that appeals to all Jewish students, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and the LGBT community. They made sure there is a place for every Jewish student at Rutgers.”

Benjamin Bass, a rising senior, has been involved with Hillel since attending his first Shabbat dinner freshman year. 

“I think Hillel is the place where people of all backgrounds can gather,” he said. “It’s a pluralistic place with so much diversity for people of all traditions. There are Syrian kids from Deal, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and even Russian kids who only know about being Jewish by heritage. You go to Rutgers Hillel and you learn so much from other students and the staff.” Bass served as Hillel’s student board treasurer and is active in the Reform community. 

One of the programming highlights cited by Kheel and Wasserman was the Israel Inspires campaign of 2003-04, a full year of Israel activity punctuated by the largest pro-Israel rally in the history of New Jersey, held on the Busch campus. 

“The series of rallies and programs captured the imagination of the state’s Jewish federations, which had always been supportive, but became even more serious supporters after seeing the leadership demonstrated,” said Wasserman.

“Rutgers Hillel is the flagship Hillel of New Jersey,” Getraer said. “Over half the Jewish students in the state are served by Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick. We serve their needs from learning, to Shabbat and holidays, from Israel to community service, giving them a sense of Jewish identity and community so they can become active and committed Jews in their communities when they graduate.”

The Hillel community outgrew the rental space and in 2009 a fraternity house was demolished in anticipation of building a new headquarters at the corner of Bishop Place and George Street. However, fund-raising proved challenging during an economic downturn and building plans stalled until a 2013 land swap with the university initiated through a partnership between Hillel, Rutgers, and the theological seminary and spearheaded by the New Brunswick Development Corp (DEVCO). It took place as part of a $330 million College Avenue redevelopment. DEVCO is a private, nonprofit urban real estate company that has been the catalyst for the city’s regentrification. 

Ground was broken in November 2014 and in 2017 the $20 million, 40,000-square-foot building opened with the help of a $3 million gift from the children of Eva and Arie Halpern in memory of their parents, Holocaust survivors from Poland, and a $2 million gift from Audrey and Zygi Wilf and Jane and Mark Wilf.

Getraer said the new building attracts 2,000 students annually and its free Shabbat dinners now bring in 300-400 students.

“We know 85 percent of our students are from New Jersey and 50 percent of them will stay in New Jersey so we are one of the most important institutions in the state for the Jewish community.” 

In addition to the honorary director awards, other honorees at the gala included: Charon and Mark Hershhorn, Media, Pa., Visionaries in Partnership; Steve Darien, Bridgewater, Champion Against Anti-Semitism; Dr. Robert and Pamela Benedon, Cherry Hill, Rabbi Julius Funk Alumni Award; Bryce Diamond, Manhattan, Young Alumni Award; and Hilary and Harry Platt, Voorhees, Parents of the Year.

Student Rising Stars were: Benjamin Bass, Westfield; Max DuBoff, Cherry Hill; Jenna Kershenbaum, Teaneck; Fedline Saintina, Union; and Sam Snyder and Brittany Yesner, both from Cherry Hill. Evan Finkelstein of Lower Merion, Pa., was given a special student leadership award.

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