New building will better serve Jewish students

By Amanda Graf

By Amanda Graf

Staff writer

When a joint project committee gathered at Hillel in late 2004 to vote on demolishing the old building, the basement room reserved for the meeting was flooded.

“There was water coming in through the roof. There was water coming up through the basement,” said Joel Schwitzer, executive director of the University of Illinois Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. “It actually made the vote very easy.”

The recent demolition of the building at 503 E. John St. is the Hillel Foundation’s first physical step toward building a new, multi-million dollar student center. Construction on the Margie K. and Louis N. Cohen Center for Jewish Life is set to begin Feb. 5 at the site of the previous center and should be finished in August 2007.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    Currently, Hillel is located at 405 E. John St. in what used to be the Presby House, formally used to house female students.

    Rabbi Benjamin Frankel founded the first Hillel in 1923 at the University, an organization that now serves more than 500 colleges and universities nationwide.

    Architect Max Abramovitz, lead designer of the United Nations building in New York, designed the UI Hillel center in the 1940s. This building was meant to be a prototype for Hillels on other campuses, and at the time of its demolition was the oldest in the nation.

    Schwitzer said it was bittersweet to see the old building destroyed, but the new center will help more Jewish students identify with Hillel.

    “One of the challenges of the old Hillel is that it looked and felt very much like a synagogue, and so it was hard to shake that perception,” Schwitzer said. “I think that the old building was a barrier to students coming in … the new building will feel less like a synagogue and more like a student center.”

    However, not all students think that the new building is necessary.

    Zinovy Shkolnikov, senior in Engineering, hangs out at Hillel in his free time. He said new additions to the old building would have been sufficient.

    “What really makes a difference is the students coming in and coming out and how the student class is,” Shkolnikov said. “I don’t think it really depends on the building.”

    Schwitzer said even in the midst of the excitement about the new building, it is important to remember that Hillel is on campus to serve the Jewish student body.

    “Hillel has a building,” Schwitzer said. “But Hillel isn’t a building.”

    The new two-story building will be 20 percent larger than the previous structure, and it includes a rooftop deck, kosher kitchen, caf‚ and a large lounge area on the first floor, Schwitzer said.

    The extra space will allow multiple organizations within Hillel to conduct their activities simultaneously.

    “As the Jewish student body grows, it is time to welcome new students with a new face for Hillel,” said Laura Elkayam, senior in LAS and co-president of Hillel’s student leadership board.

    The building is named for the late Margie K. Cohen and Louis N. Cohen, UI alumni who met on campus in the 1930s. The Cohen’s estate donated $2 million in the early stages of the project as a naming gift. In a press release from Hillel, Pattee Schnitzer, the Cohen’s daughter, said her parents’ two great interests were Jewish life and education.

    “It will be a lasting tribute to them,” Schnitzer said.

    Hillel has worked closely with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago in the ongoing campaign to raise funds for the Cohen Center. Schwitzer said most donations come from alumni and parents, but he hopes people with an appreciation for the history of Hillel will contribute, too.

    The Libman Company, a cleaning supply business based in Arcola, Ill., is matching every contribution that comes from the downstate area. Currently, $5.25 million of the $8.6 million needed has been raised.

    A general question and answer session about the project will be held at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Hillel.