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A Brief History

by Hillel News |Sep 18, 2008|Comments

In the Beginning

In 1921, a small group of college students at the University of Illinois came together under the wing of a local rabbinic student named Benjamin Frankel. The 24-year old, who was interning at nearby Temple Sinai in Champaign, described his Jewish peers as being in a state of "intellectual flux."

As the children of recent Jewish immigrants, many were struggling to strike a balance between being American and being Jewish. Frankel worked closely with the university's Jewish student population of approximately 300 students to strengthen their dual identities.

When he was ordained in 1923, the group began meeting more formally - in a rented room above a barbershop in downtown Champaign. Rabbi Frankel and his students were ready to expand but they needed resources…and a name.

Hillel Founder Rabbi Ben Frankel.
Hillel Founder Rabbi Ben Frankel.

Frankel reached out to B'nai B'rith for support and campus leaders started to pay attention. Edward Chauncey Baldwin, a non-Jewish professor of English at the university, famously challenged Chicago Jewish leader Rabbi Louis Mann, asking: "Don't you think the time has come when a Jewish student might educate his mind without losing his soul?"

From there, Frankel, Baldwin and Mann began working together and their fundraising efforts quickly developed the part-time student program into a full-time organization. Impressively, the men raised the entire first-year budget - $12,000 - in a single luncheon. The as-yet-unnamed Hillel was off and running.

A Life Cut Short

It didn't take long for Frankel and a board of lay leaders to assign the name Hillel, a tribute to one of Judaism's greatest teachers. Abram L. Sachar, a history professor at the university as well as Frankel's friend, colleague and successor, called the name a "felicitous choice" that appealed not only to Jews, but to Professor Baldwin and the Christian fellowship that pioneering the foundation.

B'nai B'rith adopted the student organization at the University of Illinois and in quick succession, Hillels opened up at the University of Wisconsin (1924), The Ohio State University (1925) and the University of Michigan (1926).

Tragically, Rabbi Frankel died of heart disease in 1927 at the age of 30 though his legacy continued to thrive.

Rabbi Mann headed the organization until 1933 when Sachar left his post at the University of Illinois to become Hillel's first national director. Over the next two decades, Hillel would continue to grow rapidly expanding to 200 colleges and universities including campuses in New York, Washington, D.C., Canada and Cuba.

The 1950s was a period of quiet growth for Hillel but Jewish Baby Boomers burst onto the campus scene (along with their Rock and Roll) in the 1960s. Spurred by pride in Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Jewish students created groups that championed causes from Soviet Jewry and Israeli independence to feminism and the environment.

Hillel students in the 1960s.
Hillel students in the 1960s.

Writing on the occasion of Hillel's 50th anniversary in 1973, Hillel International Director Rabbi Alfred Jospe observed: "thousands of young people, among them our best and most sensitive students…are searching for better ways to express and act upon their moral and spiritual concerns."

But cutbacks to Hillel's budget forced campus professionals to do more with less. Programs were cut and financial assistance to students fell by the wayside. Jewish federations began to play an increasingly important role in the governance and funding of local Hillels. By 1988, Hillel as a national movement faced an uncertain future.

The Renaissance

At a crossroads, B'nai B'rith leadership hired a youthful attorney and Yeshiva University dean to breathe new life into the organization. As an outsider, 37-year old Richard M. Joel could see aspects of Hillel less visible to insiders.
As former associate international director Rabbi William Rudolph put it, "We thought Hillel needed a tune-up. Richard knew it needed an overhaul."

In 1990, the American Jewish community was dealt a shocking blow; a troubling national survey revealed more American Jews were marrying outside the faith. Since an estimated 85 percent of American Jews attend college, Hillel was the logical antidote. As Joel was working to reshape the organization's image, a new mission statement was adopted: "Maximizing the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews."

In 1994, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life was created as an independent non-profit organization. A Board of Directors was formed and the organization's international profile was raised when renowned Jewish leader Edgar M. Bronfman, chairman of the Seagram Corporation and the World Jewish Congress, signed on as the chair of Hillel International Board of Governors.

Bronfman and Joel undertook a campaign to provoke a "Jewish renaissance," a joyful celebration of Jewish life and strengthening the Jewish community on campus and beyond.

"We thought about the term 'rejuvenation,'" Bronfman often jokes. "But we found it was not only a bad pun. We found that it was not as compelling among students."

Richard Joel and Edgar Bronfman.
Joel (left) with Bronfman.

In addition to Bronfman, prominent Jewish philanthropists Judy and Michael Steinhardt and Charles z"l and Lynn Schusterman have contributed generously to Hillel's success engaging Jewish students.

With financial support from philanthropists Judy and Michael Steinhardt, Hillel created the Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps, a group of recent college graduates who were hired by Hillel to "engage" uninvolved Jewish students. As recent graduates, these JCSC Fellows could work with students as peers. Under the direction of JCSC Director Rhoda Weisman, the JCSC program grew to include dozens of campuses around the world.

In 1999, Hillel Board of Governors Co-Chair Michael Steinhardt and Board member Charles Bronfman conceived a bold idea: provide a trip to Israel for Jews ages 18-26 who had never been to Israel -- and make the trip free. They believed that such a program would enable uninvolved Jewish students to connect with their Jewish community, Israel and the Jewish people. Hillel has been a leading provider of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips since its inception.

Under the direction of Hillel President Wayne L. Firestone, Hillel launched The Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative (CEI) in 2006 to address the unique needs of "the millennials," those young people who came of age around the turn of the millennium. Now on 17 campuses, CEI hires student interns to build relationships with thousands of uninvolved Jewish students, including many Taglit-Birthright Israel participants, creating successful follow-through and connecting them to Jewish life.

First Hillel in Champaign Illinois.
Exterior shot of first gathering place for Hillel students, Illinois 1923.

From a rented space above a Midwestern barbershop in 1923, Hillel has grown to nearly a thousand professionals employed across the globe and tens of thousands of active students on campuses throughout North America, South America, Israel and the Former Soviet Union. New Hillel buildings are going up every semester and new programs are enjoying tremendous success.

Young Jewish people are expressing their Jewishness in a myriad of ways on campuses from Montevideo to Silicon Valley to Siberia. Around the world, these young people are becoming leaders of an international movement that is celebratory, pluralistic, creative, engaging and empowering.

Hillel has a new mission statement - "to enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students so that they may enrich the lives of the Jewish people and the world." - but the sentiment is as old as the organization itself.

Related Stories:

Hillel at 85: Engaging From the Start

Tell Us Your Jewish Campus Story!

Washington Jewish Week on Hillel's 85th anniversary exhibit.

Paging Through Hillel History: Documents from Our Past

Hillel Rabbis Off to War

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