Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller walks out of his office at the University Religious Conference, locking the door on its matted and stained rust-colored carpet, which for years has been covered with stacks of books and journals. On his way out, he doesn't bother to glance into the musty student lounge because he knows students don't hang out there. As he emerges onto Hilgard Avenue, he lets the glass-and-steel door swing shut on the building where UCLA Hillel has been housed since the 1950s.
He makes his way north on Hilgard to the corner of Westholme Avenue for a visit to the nearly complete Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life. Standing at the northern end of Sorority Row, just east of the center of campus, the building's gracefully curving facade of Jerusalem stone gleams against the overcast sky. An archway beckons with open arms, awaiting the students who will soon fill the spacious lounges, offices and meeting rooms.
This Sunday, Seidler-Feller plans to make a similar trek -- this time permanently -- as he dances through campus with Torah scrolls and hundreds of students and community members to celebrate the dedication of the new 22,000-square-foot facility, which will host its first Shabbat for students this week.
"My great hope is that the building becomes a hangout, and that it is a comfortable place where students can come to do their work, have something to eat or just to be with friends," said Seidler-Feller, who has been with Hillel for 27 years. "I hope that it will provide us with really wonderful programming opportunities."
Seidler-Feller and others who have worked for the last six years to bring the building to reality are fully aware that an edifice alone does not revitalize a Jewish community. But the energy that it is arousing in students and community members is apparent. Seidler-Feller said students have already begun to approach him about new programming ideas and religious services.
"The building is just a shell for our program," said Janice Kamenir-Reznick, an attorney who chaired the building campaign. "I think our program was stifled by an outdated and remote venue, so it is a sign of our maturity and our need and readiness to move and to elevate everything about the program.... I don't think buildings can solve problems, but I think they can help."
The building is sure to draw students, with ice blendeds at the kosher cafe, a pool table and pingpong table, a kosher cafeteria opening in the winter quarter, meeting rooms, student offices and an artfully crafted multipurpose room.
There is ample lounge space filled with comfortable couches and chairs and laptop outlets, many of which are wired for high-speed Internet connections, in addition to a bank of computers and printers available free of charge to students.
"We decided we can't give students anything less than they have at UCLA," said Daniel Inlender, who was on the architectural committee as a student and has remained involved since he graduated two years ago. "So if they have access to color laser printers in the library, then we can't give them anything less than that because they wouldn't come."
The hope is that someone who comes to watch a football game on the large-screen television might stick around for a class or come back for Shabbat dinner. Jewish social circles can develop with a natural focal point, highlighted by programs such as Israeli dancing night, scholarly or political lectures or Jewish student film festivals.
The arts, Seidler-Feller said, will be a major part of the program.
Outside the airy social hall-auditorium on the third floor is a reception area and gallery space. A performance stage sits in the cafe, and Seidler-Feller envisions regular open-mic nights.
The building itself has an accessible sense of artistry. The corridors meander ever so slightly, just where the archways cast shadows on the sand-colored tile -- an evocation of Jerusalem's Old City.
David Moss, the Judaica artist renowned for his haggadah, ran focus groups with students and worked as a consultant. His touch is evident down the center hallway, where glass bricks containing dirt from the lands of the Jewish Diaspora replace the tile every few feet. When the multipurpose room is divided into three sections for services of various denominations, transparent arks will visually connect students as they pray.
David Myers, professor of Jewish history at UCLA, hopes the building will draw in faculty members, as well, and that the larger Los Angeles community will see the building as a cultural and intellectual center.
"Because of the university's cachet, because of the dynamism of the staff and the incredible facility and resources, UCLA Hillel is going to be able to attract the most outstanding and important thinkers in American and world Jewish life," Myers said.
But there are cautious notes, as well. Maintenance, staffing and programming costs are anticipated to rise, although Hillel is in the final stretch of a $15 million capital and endowment campaign. The campaign was kicked off with donations of $1 million each from Edgar Bronfman, Steven Spielberg and the late Lew Wasserman. Henry and Susan Samueli of Orange County, Lee and Irving Kalsman and their daughter and son-in-law, Peachy and Mark Levy, along with the Spiegel Family Foundation, contributed major funding, too.
Rhoda Weisman, chief creative officer for international Hillel, who works out of Los Angeles, said that while costs increase, buildings have been known to bring out more donors for programming.
"For some reason, buildings give you permission to ask for things you would never have asked for -- and get them," said Weisman, who started her career in Hillel as UCLA's program director.
Weisman said her biggest concern is that the building can make a community too insular.
"The danger of this wonderful building is that the Jewish community stays in the building, and emphasis is not put on going out of the building and meeting students where they're at," she said.
UCLA, like other California campuses, cannot afford to become complacent when it comes to reaching out to the unaffiliated students who make up about three-quarters of the Jews on campus.
"Ninety percent of all Jewish kids go to college," Kamenir-Reznick said. "This is our last clear chance to reach young Jewish people in an organizational way, because after college they disperse. [Community support for Hillel] is an acknowledgment of the significance of our opportunity to touch them in a way that will bind them in deeper terms to the community."
On the 20 campuses nationwide where Hillel buildings have gone up in the last 15 years, including CSUN and USC, nearly every one has been well-utilized and has positively impacted the campus, Weisman said. It has also created a sense of pride even in students who never walk into the building, she added.
"The challenge is not to let the building overwhelm the vision, to realize at all times that as beautiful as it is, and as inviting as it is, the task is to touch students," said Seidler-Feller, whose new office has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on every wall. "As much as you can believe that stones have souls and as comforting a presence as we are, the overwhelming reality is that the majority of Jewish students are not involved Jewishly, and there is an enormous task ahead."
Dahlia Rabin-Pelossof, minister in the Israeli Knesset and daughter of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, is featured as the keynote speaker at the dedication of the new Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, Sunday, Nov. 17. Procession from old building (900 Hilgard Ave.) begins at 12:30 p.m. Program at new building (574 Hilgard Ave.) begins at 1 p.m. For more information call (310) 208-3081.
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