By Kimberly Siegal
Hundreds of students, parents and faculty joined together yesterday to celebrate the dedication of Penn's new $12 million Hillel building, Steinhardt Hall.
"We have the people, the program and now we have the building," said College sophomore Rachel Rosenthal, Hillel's student education chairwoman.
The path to the building's construction -- which was completed at the end of the summer -- was one wrought by hard work, determination and vision. Edwin Berkowitz, the building's chairman, noted that "all great works begin with a vision, and the vision for the new Hillel building began in 1999."
And now, thanks to donors such as Michael and Judy Steinhardt -- who provided the $2.5 million naming gift in May 2001 -- Penn students can experience a "milestone in the history of the Jewish presence at Penn," said David Stern, the director of Penn's Jewish Studies program.
The building is not yet fully paid off, however, as Hillel continues to fundraise through plaques and dedications within the facility. At the beginning of the fall semester, Executive Director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia Rabbi Howard Alpert had estimated the remaining costs at about $1 million.
Students attending the dedication praised the new 36,000-square-foot building, which now houses Penn's kosher dining facilities.
"I spend half of my life there," Engineering freshman Ari Gilder said. He continued by noting that Steinhardt Hall is "a great resource just to hang out, especially because it's really in the center of things."
College freshman Tracey Liebman agreed, saying that Steinhardt Hall "is a welcoming place [with] a community setting to get together with friends."
Gilder and Liebman apparently hit the purpose of Steinhardt Hall right on the dot. Michael Steinhardt, a Wharton graduate, emphasized the importance of Steinhardt Hall being located amongst student residences, saying, "Wherever students congregate, we should be there."
The dedication ceremony was held at an important time in the Jewish religion, during which Jews start to read once again from the beginning of the Torah where, according to the book of Genesis, God created light -- and this theme of light strung together the entire ceremony.
University President Judith Rodin emphasized the power of light and new beginnings.
"Steinhardt Hall," Rodin said, "is the light that dovetails with the core values of Hillel and the University [as a whole. Still,] it's the students who will make the difference here."
Hillel Student President and College senior Jason Auerbach noted at the ceremony that there are over 3,000 students in the Jewish community at Penn, making the old Hillel building -- located on 36th Street between Walnut Street and Locust Walk -- an insufficient facility.
But he said that the fact that the old Hillel building was too small "is a curse we'll gladly accept."
Hillel, whose new facility now nearly doubles the space provided by the previous building and the former kosher dining venue, offers a place for all Penn students to feel welcome at a time when most are "struggling with issues of community, friendship and intimacy," Hillel Director Jeremy Brochin said.
As a College freshman, Brochin said he felt quite alone being away from his family, but it was Hillel that helped him through these hard times -- "it was Hillel that was that place," he said.
The dedication ceremony featured Penn's Jewish a cappella group, the Shabbatones, as well as Penn's very own Glee Club, who sang both the National Anthem and the Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.
Speakers noted the fact that Penn's Jewish community has grown so drastically over the decades.
"When I was a child," Steinhardt said, "the Ivy Leagues had Jewish quotas. Now, the Ivies are magnets for Jewish students, and so the new Hillel is a testament to our achievement."
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Pennsylvanian