Central Florida Hillel is a catalyst for transformational growth as an individual and as a Jew.
Hillel began as a classic campus ministry in 1923 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Edward Chauncey Baldwin, a protestant Congregationalist English professor, concerned about the absence of organized Jewish life at Illinois, lobbied Jewish businessmen in Chicago to hire a rabbi and establish a Jewish campus ministry. The Chicago funders appointed Benjamin Frankel, a young, charismatic Reform rabbi, as the first director of the fledgling campus ministry who named the organization for the first-century sage, Hillel, a symbol of open inquiry, lifelong learning, and pluralistic values. Operating out of a rented room over a barbershop, Frankel framed key elements of the organization. Unlike the Menorah Society, an earlier student-run club founded at Harvard University in 1906, the University of Illinois Hillel created an infrastructure with a campus professional, dedicated space, and a community-supported budget. In order to sustain and expand Hillel, Frankel sought national sponsorship from the Reform movement who declined his request for support. Rebuffed by the Reform movement, he convinced B’nai B’rith to adopt the organization in 1925, and then quickly launched a second Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, and a third at Ohio State University.
The Reform movement’s historic rejection, and B’nai B’rith’s timely embrace, allowed Hillel to adopt a multi-denominational, pluralistic framework as the all-inclusive Jewish community on campus. Under the leadership of Rabbi Frankel and Abram *Sachar, who was serving as a University of Illinois history professor, Hillel expanded rapidly by hiring rabbis to provide critical spiritual, cultural, educational, and social services to Jewish campus communities throughout the United.
Not surprisingly, the social changes of the 1960s had an immense impact on Jewish life on campus. Jewish men and women were among the beneficiaries of the civil rights revolution as barriers fell, new opportunities arose, and Jews increasingly participated in every aspect of campus life. Jewish students also disproportionately embraced and even led the culture wars of the 1960s. With this in mind, and like other campus ministries, Hillel struggled to respond to the challenges of a new era and to be taken seriously in an age of diminished support for organized religious life.
The social upheavals of the 1960s also affected B’nai B’rith, and financial cutbacks exacerbated Hillel’s problems. Hillel lacked the ability to expand to new campuses with large Jewish enrollments; to recruit and retain quality Jewish professionals; and to attract large numbers of Jewish students. Although Jewish federations began to play an increasingly important role in the governance and funding of local and regional Hillels, they offered little organizational vision. Although a number of individual Hillels and Hillel directors of the 1960s rose to the challenge and planted the seeds of organizational transformation, the movement as a whole became marginalized, maligned, and factionalized through the next two decades.
In the 1980s college admissions barriers to Jews were dropped, and the sheer scope of the challenge to serve Jews on campus grew beyond the capacity of B’nai B’rith, and Hillel’s financial allocations were cut by 50 percent.
During the 1990s, Hillel splits from B’nai B’rith, renaming itself Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and rebounds with unprecedented vigor. By the late 1990s, Hillel encompasses 120 foundations and affiliates at an additional 400 campuses. In the late 1990s under the energetic leadership of Richard Joel, Hillel wins support from major Jewish family foundations and local federations of Jewish philanthropy, both to build impressive new facilities and to underwrite new ventures. Its “Campaign for a Jewish Renaissance” raised $37.5 million in 1998 alone.
In 2001, leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando established Central Florida Hillel to serve the Jewish college students of Central Florida.
The University of Central Florida has the third largest Jewish student population outside of the state of Israel. A conservatively estimated 6,000 Jewish students attend UCF, and UCF is currently the second largest, and fastest growing, university in the western hemisphere. With this in mind several major national philanthropists and foundations have recognized the importance of UCF for the future of the American Jewish community, and have invested a significant amount of knowledge and resources into Central Florida Hillel.
In 2013 Central Florida Hillel opened a brand new state of the art building just off of campus at UCF. NorthView, the 600,000 square foot facility, was designed to not only house Hillel, but also serve as a 600 bed residence hall, and includes 20,000 square feet of program space for the Catholic Campus Ministry. We have the usual amenities that one would expect to find at any Hillel across the country – pool table, ping pong table and TVs with video games – but in addition, we offer our students a movie theater, swimming pool, sand volleyball court, and a fully kosher restaurant slated to open in spring 2015. However, the building and staff would not matter without the engaging and meaningful programmatic opportunities available to our students – Shabbat dinners and services, social events and programs, Birthright, Masa and OnWard Israel trips, and opportunities to give back and connect to each other, to their schools, and to the greater Jewish community.
Hillel is the last opportunity for engagement before adulthood. According to the 2013 Pew study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” One-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion. Only 4% of Jews of no religion will belong to a synagogue or other communal organization and only 20% of Jews of no religion will donate to a Jewish charity. 44% of American Jews will marry a non-Jewish spouse and 2/3s of them will raise their children with no Jewish identity at all.
We don’t know what the future of the Jewish community will look like. We don’t know what synagogues will look like, we don’t know what Federations will look like, we don’t know what Jewish day schools and summer camps will look like but there is one thing that we can be sure of, in 50 years Jews will still be going to college.