By David Price, editorial page editor
Fifty years ago, B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation opened the first center for Jewish students at the University of Maryland, College Park. Since that time, through four directors, five buildings, and countless students, the center has, in the words of current Hillel Student Organization (HSO) president Michelle Green, “given every Jew on campus a place where he or she can feel at home.” Hillel provides activities not only for campus Jewish students but also for members of the surrounding community. Hillel’s services are open to all surrounding community members, and the High Holiday services are always well-attended.
With the world on the brink of war in 1939, Rabbi Sam Silver, the first Jewish leader in College Park, began hosting campus students in his local apartment. Silver’s weekly Shabbat services were later continued by Eli Pilchik, his successor as Hillel rabbi. While Judaism in Europe was under Nazi attack, these two individuals were providing a home for the glimmer of a Jewish community in what was then a small American college town.
In 1945 Orthodox Rabbi Meir Greenberg started a similar program at his home on Knox Road. Soon, though, Hillel began to grow, obtaining the hundred-year-old house on Yale Avenue that became the school’s first Jewish Student Center. According to Reba Feinstein, the a member of B’nai B’rith Women in College Park, the Hillel building was also the center for the town’s small Jewish community.
Feinstein, who remains active in the organization, recalled meeting with other B’nai B’rith Women members at the Yale Avenue center. During these meetings, members would plan “to do something for the community to show that Jews help everybody.”
“I wanted to get everybody involved in helping young people,” says Feinstein of her early involvement with the Jewish Student Center. “In this city everything we [B’nai B’rith Women] did, we did for Hillel.” She recalls cooking for students after the opening of the kosher dining hall in 1963. “We had two great big stoves down there,” she remembers, “and we used to make latkes and all kinds of things for the students. On the holidays I’d go there and set the tables for them.”
Every year, Feinstein helped Hillel prepare for High Holiday services. “I washed 40 tallaisim and ironed them,” she recalls. “I [still] do that every year; I can’t remember when I started.”
Beginning in 1945, when she first moved to College Park, Feinstein rented rooms in her home to Jewish students. She rented to Jewish girls until “the University decided that freshman girls would have to liv in the dormitories” in 1946. Since that time, she has generally been renting to Jewish boys, although she has occasionally had a non-Jewish tenant.
In addition to founding the nation’s first and largest independent kosher college dining hall during his 33-year tenure at Hillel, Rabbi Greenberg created the Hebrew Studies program, from which today’s Jewish Studies program developed.
In the late 1960s, Hillel bought the property on Mowatt Lane, which is the present location of the Jewish Student Center. According to current Hillel Director Robert Saks, a Reform rabbi, the fundraising effort for the new building, begun around 1969, had “made some progress” when the 1973 Yom Kippur War in Israel “deflected a tremendous amount of Jewish fundraising concern to Israel, and [organizers] lost the momentum for the project.”
The history of Saks’ personal involvement with Hillel is almost as rich as that of the organization itself. From 1960 until 1964, while a student at the university, he worked as a student Hillel leader under then-director Greenberg. “There was definitely more of a sense of staff control [than there is now],” recalls Saks. When he became the director in 1978, Saks restructured the Hillel organization by making the student group, the Hillel Student Organization, largely independent while giving the staff a predominantly advisory role.
While a student here, Saks was deeply involved with the civil rights movement, joining other Hillel members in protests outside a segregated apartment building, now used for graduate housing, and against segregationist Alabama politician George Wallace, who visited campus during that time. Hillel members also participated in the March on Washington, in which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Additionally, the organization was involved with the anti-Vietnam War effort, joining in the campus protests.
Saks began his career at the campus Hillel as a co-director in 1974 after leaving his director’s position at the University of Arizona Hillel in Tucson to return to College Park. He “got the building committee back in order, renewed contracts with the architects, and got the [building] project started back up again,” he says. Construction of the new center was completed in 1981.
Before construction began on the new building, Hillel has used the Mowatt Lane property to house what Saks called a “liberal counter to Hillel,” named “Breirah” (“Alternative”). In addition to hosting Saturday night coffeehouses that attracted up to 100 people, this new group was involved in counseling draftees and became “one of the centers of anti-war activity on campus,” according to Saks.
The Reform community held Shabbat services, usually attended by about 30 people, at the Mowatt Lane location on Friday nights. Bob Conn, a business major during the late 1970s and a former tenant at the old Mowatt Lane building, recalled the Israeli folk dancing, Sunday outings, and Friday night discussion led by Rabbi Saks that typified the Center. Since the start of construction of the new building in 1978, no Reform group has been successful in conducting regular services, although several attempts have been made.
“Reform Jews really need a space of their own,” says Saks. “I don’t want to say anything that sound like a put-down of anybody else, but for whatever reasons, they’re not confident enough or comfortable enough in the ambiance of Hillel to develop a religious life under the same roof [as the other groups at Hillel]. There just aren’t people who are [sufficiently] committed and strong-willed to see to it that these things happen.” However, Saks says, “I truly believe that when we do a dance, or bring in a Chaim Potok [the noted Jewish author who will visit campus October 26] or have a barbecue, I don’t think there’s any disproportional participation. I don’t have a sense that we’re not serving the Reform community.”
For a number of years, a Reconstructionist group conducted regular services at the new building. Saks attributes the success of the Reconstructionist services to the fact that they “were close enough in style to the Conservative kids to create something that succeeded.”
Also in the late 1970s, another group of students broke away from the main Hillel, for political as well as financial reasons. Described by Rabbi Saks as “fairly Orthodox, fairly right-wing politically, and ‘JDL [Jewish Defense League]-ish,’” these students formed the Jewish Student Union. While Saks admitted that the split was partially over political disagreements with him, he said that the group was primarily interested in tapping the resources of the camps student government. As a religious group, the JSU would have been ineligible for these funds. The JSU therefore established as its goal the promotion of Jewish culture and has since been involved in nearly every aspect of Jewish life on campus.
According to Saks, Hillel has not only been successful in achieving its goals, but has also become “an example of what Hillels are supposed to [be].” The organization has been a “real pioneer in its 50 years,” Saks adds, because of its role in developing the Jewish Studies program and the country’s first independent kosher dining hall. He notes that incorporating Hasidic outreach, in the person of Assistant Director Rabbi Ben-Zion Chanowitz, now on sabbatical in Israel, is “fairly unique to [Maryland’s] Hillel.” Also, the Hillel phone line, with taped messages about topics ranging from Jewish jokes to conversion and intermarriage, has become extremely popular.
Saks attributes much of Hillel’s success to the building’s ambiance, which he says is “not so formal”; the emphasis is on recreational aspects, with features such as a spacious lounge and a popcorn machine.
Current HSO president Green agrees that Hillel has been mostly successful. “There’s something for everybody here,” she says, adding that “the students make Hillel” and “the adults often lose the perspective we have.” She wishes that more students would get involved and hopes that the findings of a campus-wide Jewish student survey, which should be available next month, can be used to help attract new participants.