Jewish students from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and their supporters raised champagne flutes and offered a blessing of thanks as they dedicated the Hillel Foundation of Orange County’s new student center across the street from the UCI campus on Feb. 5. The facility, which officially opened its doors in January, houses the entire Hillel operation for UCI and Chapman University in Orange and will serve as a focal point for UCI Jewish student activity.
The Hillel office had previously been housed nearly two miles from campus at the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine.
UCI has been the scene of inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric that has polarized Jewish and Muslim students in the past, leading some in the Jewish community to proclaim the campus as unwelcome to the estimated 1,000 Jewish students enrolled. Jewish student leaders reject this portrayal, pointing to Hillel’s new office as just one example of flourishing Jewish life on campus and to the administration’s assistance in establishing the center as proof of its support for Jewish students.
“The space is really a symbol for Jewish students,” said Jordan Fruchtman, Hillel Foundation of Orange County’s executive director. “No matter what happens on campus, they will always have a place where they feel safe, welcome and comfortable. It’s a place where students feel good and create memories that build a strong Jewish identity. More important, it’s a place where Jewish students can come together every day and be together. As simple as that sounds, I think it’s the most important thing Hillel can offer.”
Students could hardly contain their excitement as they chatted with Hillel board members and Jewish community leaders over cookies and challah and took them on a tour of the office suite.
“This is a huge breakthrough for UCI,” said Ami Kurzweil, a fourth-year student and president of Hillel. “The older students are like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is here now.’ It gives us a sense of comfort and confidence.”
Describing the event as a “significant moment” in the development of Orange County’s Jewish community and in its ongoing partnership with the UCI administration, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue in Irvine assisted Hillel board president Bruce Fischer in affixing a mezuzah to the facility entrance as more than 40 attendees, including UCI Chancellor Michael Drake, looked on.
“How excited we were to be able to participate in bringing Hillel to campus,” said Drake, who Hillel board members said was instrumental in securing the site. “Having the space to help us build the memories is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”
As late as last semester, Jewish student groups, including Anteaters for Israel and the AEPi fraternity and AEPhi sorority, scrambled to book or rent rooms on campus for their meetings, while Hillel events were held a mile and a half off campus at the Merage Jewish Community Center. The new Hillel center is strategically nestled in a bustling commercial plaza across the street from the university that buzzes with students and faculty at all hours of the day. A footbridge links the plaza to the main campus. Supporters hope that a more accessible Hillel facility will increase interest and participation in Jewish student groups.
“Having this space is important, because the students weren’t going to the JCC,” Orange County philanthropist and Hillel board member Liz Merage said. “It’s a home on campus and that’s the purpose of Hillel. We’re hoping that we bring in more of the Jewish students to join the group.”
The 1,400-square-foot facility is already having the magnet effect its proponents intended, Fruchtman said. Students have been dropping by every day since staff started moving in to use computers, printers and WiFi free of charge, hold meetings and study groups, or just to hang out in a student lounge named in memory of former Hillel President Bruce Manning, who died in August 2009 before realizing his dream of finding a home near campus for Hillel.
Students say having meeting space readily available is making it easier for them to attract new members.
The center is also helping to build relationships between the students and the wider Jewish community.
“A lot of adults from the community come to see the office,” Kurzweil said. “Before the center, there was a huge disconnect between students and the community at large. Now [students] are seeing the faces behind the money and where the love comes from and why it’s important to keep this thriving.”