Students enjoy the recently opened Margie K. and Louis N. Cohen Center for Jewish Life at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
It is hard to say whether the founders of Hillel realized the impact they would have on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus or how far their vision would go when creating the organization. But if they were to return to the place of their humble beginnings, they would be mighty proud of what they saw.
Eighty-five years after setting up shop in a rented room above a barbershop in Champaign, Ill., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Hillel celebrated the opening of the Margie K. and Louis N. Cohen Center for Jewish Life.
Built on the site of the previous Hillel building, the new 18,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility boasts a large student lounge equipped with a 60-inch plasma screen TV, surround sound, satellite television and a Nintendo Wii system; dairy and meat kosher kitchens; coffee bar; computer lab and printing stations; wireless Internet throughout; traditional prayer and Jewish learning space as well as additional multi-purpose and conference room space; upper-level deck for barbecues and the Hillel sukkah; and offices for the Hillel staff and interns.
"[The Cohen Center] is truly a place that has something for everyone," said executive director Joel Schwitzer. "Students are excited to come to Hillel for the warm facility and engaging staff."
According to Schwitzer, on an average weeknight the Cohen Center is occupied by 50 to 60 students even if there is no formal programming scheduled. The building has become so popular that staff has extended their operating hours twice since opening last December, remaining open until midnight Mondays-Thursdays and as late as 2 a.m. during finals.
"If we could be 24 hours a day, we'd see people 24 hours a day," said Schwitzer.
After moving to the area local patron Laura Schatzman used the Hillel facility to help get her settled into the community.
"The new Hillel facility is gorgeous," she said. "It has been a wonderful experience to be able to look for work at such a wonderful place; I have not found many places such as this and am very grateful."
Prior to the construction of the Cohen Center, the Urbana-Champaign Hillel was housed in a facility first built in 1950.
"It was designed to be a prototype of what other Hillel buildings should look like," explained Schwitzer. "While it was ahead of its time back then, 50 years later that was no longer the case."
With the help of the Jewish Federation of Metro Chicago, Urbana-Champaign Hillel was able to secure a multi-million dollar naming gift from the daughters of Margie and Louis Cohen.
"The Federation was able to partner us up with the Cohen sisters who were looking to name a project after their parents," said Schwitzer. "They thought Hillel was a very appropriate way to honor their parents' memories as they had met at the university."
A month later, Hillel received an anonymous $1 million gift through the charitable foundation of University of Illinois alum. The Hillel is now $1 million away from reaching its $8.6 million goal. With all construction costs covered, the remaining funds needed will go toward establishing a building endowment to underwrite the rising costs of keeping the Cohen Center running smoothly.
But, with all the excitement over the new facilities, Schwitzer sometimes has to remind himself and his staff that there is more to Hillel than getting students through the door.
"Yes, we have this great facility but we can't let that get in the way of building relationships with students," he said. "We still have to go and meet them where they are because without relationships you just have another student coming in to use your space and nothing more."