Cars slow and heads turn as curious UCLA students drive past 574 Hilgard Ave. The construction site will be the new home of the UCLA Hillel building, scheduled to open this fall. "I hope that it really will be a home, just like the Jewish students at UCLA are a family," said Allon Rafael, student co-chair of UCLA Hillel.
The 22,000-square-foot building has been a long-awaited gift to Jewish students at UCLA, as well as the Hillel staff. It will ultimately replace the 25-year-old dilapidated building that is currently known as Hillel. "It's not a comfortable place where we are now. There's no place to relax.... It's cold, and there's one big multipurpose room. It doesn't have a comfortable feel," Rafael said.
However, Rafael and others will never have to be concerned about comfort and space at Hillel again, thanks to a naming gift from Lee and Irving Kalsman and founding donors Edgar Bronfman, Edie and Lew Wasserman, Steven Spielberg and the Samueli Foundation.
The center will consist of three stories, each with a special feel and function. Near the entrance, a cafe, sponsored by The Coffee Bean, will serve hot and cold drinks and snacks daily. The coffeehouse will function as a student hangout, offering live music and Saturday night shows. "You really get a sense that this is for the students," Associate Director Carol Bar-Or said.
A complete kosher kitchen on the second floor will serve at least two meals daily and allow many "Orthodox students to look at UCLA, perhaps for the first time," Bar-Or noted. A large board room for student and volunteer board meetings, study rooms, a computer center and administrative offices will also be on the second floor.
On floor three, perhaps the most aesthetically beautiful floor of the building, will be a sanctuary, auditorium and theater surrounded by a wall of glass. Each venue can be used individually, or all three can be transformed into one large area, with seating for 300 to 350 people.
It is apparent, even in these intermediate stages, that the building was designed with the intention of creating a home away from home for Jewish students. "A Judaic theme will be evident from the moment you walk in until you leave," Bar-Or said.
Israeli artist David Moss created this theme by designing an original artistic concept of glass blocks, filled with earth from various countries, placed intermittently along the floor of the entry hallway; the implication being to replicate the journey of the Jewish people. The hallway will ultimately lead to an outdoor meditation garden designed in the shape of the state of Israel. The entire front façade of the building will be constructed of Jerusalem stone.
Student co-chair Nicole Guzik believes that the new Hillel building will be a draw for many students who might not have been previously involved in Hillel. "The location is really key. I think that the Greek students will take advantage of the new building because it is so close to sorority row -- you have to pass by it." However, Guzik is also concerned that the elaborate building might give students the wrong message. "I want students to remember that Hillel is very student-initiated. It is not a pool of monetary resources.... Money talks, but it doesn't talk when it comes to commitment. It still takes student commitment."
Leading by example, Guzik and Rafael have sat in on numerous board meetings and spoken at fundraisers for the building. They have found that contributors have taken their ideas to heart and that the final result will really be a student building. "They didn't have to ask us for our input, and we really appreciate that," Guzik said.
In addition to a student building, Bar-Or hopes that the new Hillel will be a "major center for the Westside Jewish community." This will be a significant change, since Hillel's previous accommodations allowed the organization to host community programs only in other larger, more comfortable venues. However, Rafael believes that "inviting somebody into your own home has much stronger implications." The center will finally enable Hillel to do so, offering a setting worthy of the impressive speakers and top-notch performers that regularly pass through the gates of UCLA. Already scheduled to launch Hillel's opening are New York Times correspondent Tom Friedman and Israeli singer Chava Alberstein. "The new building is going to help us offer Judaism better," Rafael said.