A Chance Encounter, A Lasting Legacy: The Power of Hillel



April 17, 2024

Chance connections at a campus Hillel event have the remarkable ability to change the course of someone’s life — and no one knows that better than Chuck and Nanci Cooper, who celebrate their 50th anniversary this year.

Chuck and Nanci met in 1972 during their freshman year at UC Davis at Hillel. In the spring of 1973 they each decided to attend a Passover seder hosted by their school’s Hillel. For both of them, it was their first seder away from their families. 

Nanci and Chuck Cooper in the 1970s

“It was off campus, and I rode my bike there by myself,” Nanci recalled. “I walked into the room, and there was Chuck at a table. There was one seat left, so I sat down.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

After that seder, they became a couple. Chuck was pre-med, studying in the College of Biological Sciences, and Nanci was an English major. Despite their busy schedules, they still made time for romance: the two were married their junior year.

Fast forward to 2022, when the Coopers celebrated their fiftieth Passover together, reflecting on the pivotal role Hillel played in their lives. 

“We wanted to do something that would create a legacy for Jewish students at UC Davis,” Chuck said. “The way the program has grown since 1973 has been so impressive.”

“It’s the leadership, including the student leadership there, that’s developed it into such a powerful program,” Nanci agreed. “It seems to me, really, like a student-run program. The students are doing the planning, they’re developing leadership skills, they’re developing connections. We want to make sure that can continue.”

Determined to pay forward the kindness and sense of belonging they found at Hillel, they embarked on a mission, using IRA assets to generously donate $500,000 – and to ensure future generations of Jewish students at UC Davis would have access to the same enriching experiences.

Last spring, they saw the way UC Davis Hillel has changed firsthand when they attended the event that impacted them the most: the annual Passover seder. 

“When we were there, it was probably about 40 students, in this little dining hall off-campus,” Chuck said. “And I think the building was just a small little bungalow. Now, there’s a whole Hillel building, in such a great location, and there were probably 200 students there at the seder.”

“The warmth was just overwhelming,” Nanci added. “You could really tell that it was really home away from home for those students. It was part of their college DNA.”

For Chuck and Nanci, making sure students continue to have that home was their biggest motivation in making their gift. 

“Jewish students need to have a place where they can identify as Jewish, and be supported,” Nanci said. “Hillel appeals to all kinds of Jewish kids — observant or not, coming from youth groups, having their first Jewish experience and finding their identity at college.”

“When you’re a freshman, and it’s dark at five o’clock, it can be lonely,” Chuck said. “And I think all students, Jewish or not, need a place where everyone knows their name. There’s a sense of community. Like, we know you. You’re welcome here. We’re excited to see you.”

As Jewish students confront significant challenges, including record levels of antisemitism, in the post-October 7 world, Chuck and Nanci said it’s vital that Hillel remain a resource to those who have questions or need support.

“How do you deal with a professor who has scheduled an exam on Rosh Hashanah?” Nanci asked. “How do you respond to antisemitism on campus?”

Hillel, they said, is there to help students answer those questions.

Nanci and Chuck also hope their generosity will inspire others to give back. 

“When we told our story at the benefit where we made our gift, people were crying,” Nanci said. “And it really moved me, thinking that by telling our story, from our hearts, other people would see that they could make a difference, too.”

With these moving words, Chuck and Nanci invite us to embrace the possibility of transformational encounters and to recognize the potential for positive change within our communities. 

After all, as Chuck advised, “You know, take a good look at who you’re sitting next to. You never know what might happen.”