My first experience with Hillel was attending a bagel brunch for new students during an accepted students day at Drexel University. My parents and I met with the executive director and a few current students in the previous Intercultural Center, a space devoid of personality that was shared with all spiritual and religious groups on campus.
The Intercultural Center was slated to be demolished in the fall, and was not sufficient for programming and developing a communal identity. The current situation was not sustainable, and it was clear that building a freestanding building for Drexel Hillel was the best option for our campus. What I didn’t yet realize at that time was the role that I would play in the development of our new home.
When I arrived on campus, Hillel had been relocated to yet another location–an academic building. Affectionately referred to as our, “fish bowl,” this space consisted of two cubicles and a couch. The poles for our Sukkah rested against the Hillel director's desk. Lacking space for the smallest of meetings, all Hillel programs were held in rental spaces scattered across Drexel’s campus. Shabbat dinners were organized in large conference rooms, services were held in classrooms, when we couldn’t secure a space, we programmed outside. But we never stopped.
I was invited to the first focus group meeting with Stanley Saitowitz, the new Hillel building’s architect, and heard my calling. I realized a way to combine my passion for human-centered design and the Jewish community. Helping to design a space that would uphold our values of pluralism and diversity was a fun challenge. We determined that there would be three chapels on the third floor of the center connected by a glass enclosed courtyard. No denomination would be assigned a space; whichever group needed it would use it. Gender neutral bathrooms were also an important addition to the Hillel, and sent a strong message to our campus that everyone is welcome in our space.
I helped tackle big questions like how Hillel would create a welcoming and secure environment for Jewish students while ensuring that their non-Jewish peers also feel welcome. By establishing a religiously accepting building, we naturally created several study and collaborative spaces for group projects. I was also involved with the selection of furniture. Choosing modular pieces that could be adapted for different scenarios was very important.
When the building initially opened, I sat in my graphic design classes learning fundamentals of place-making and way-finding. The coolest part of this was that I could directly apply the skills being taught to the development of our Hillel. As my academic confidence increased, I became even more active in the process.
I worked extensively with Drexel’s communications office on developing the brand standards for the Center and in the process, re-branded Drexel Hillel. Conducting focus groups with key stakeholders about crafting the perfect balance between “Jewish” and “Drexel” became second nature, and managing the expectations of lay leaders, professional staff, university partners, students and community members was a breeze.
We held High Holiday services in our new home in the fall of 2016, followed that October by the formal dedication of the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life. The Jews of Drexel, wandering since 1923, finally came home. I write this reflection from my desk in my home away from home. Drexel’s new slogan is, “Ambition can’t wait,” and this building is a living testament to those words.
Max W. Kahn is a graphic design student at Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.