On his first day of work in 1985 as executive director of the Hillel Foundation at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Rabbi Stephen Cohen received a telling welcome.
Cohen, a former New Yorker, stepped off the plane and took a cab straight to the University Religion Center (URC), where the offices of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life are housed. A social worker, prompted by the rabbi's forlorn and scruffy look, invited him to take part in that day's breakfast program for the homeless.
Cohen, 28 at the time, laughed and explained his position.
But on a certain level the social worker may not have been entirely wrong in her guess. As Cohen worked to strengthen and enlarge the Hillel community, he foresaw Hillel's "homelessness" as an obstacle to achieving the success he envisioned. Last May, after years of planning and fundraising, Cohen looked up with pride at a real home for his community: The Milton Roisman Jewish Student Center.
"We know that this gives us much, much more visibility on campus and in the community than we had before," Cohen said. "It creates a Jewish space that we hope will be inviting not just for students who are interested in coming to services, but who want to watch television, play Ping-Pong, have something to eat."
The center is quite a contrast to Hillel's previous domain, which was limited to two offices and rented use of the lounge and auditorium. Located near the URC in the lush and cozy Isla Vista community a few blocks away from the campus, the center combines the serenity of Santa Barbara, sensitivity to Jewish tradition, and comforts of a home away from home. "We wanted architecture that would feel timeless, that would have the feeling of both relating to tradition and feeling fresh and new," Cohen told The Journal.
The building is environmentally friendly. There is no central air conditioning -- cool breezes and sunlight pour through careful positioning of large windows. The beige interior, lined with wood, contains a lobby, sanctuary and cafeteria with a kosher kitchen, TV lounge, conference room, library, offices and large outdoor gardens. The garden landscape is dotted with biblical plants, such as acacia, olive, almond, fig and pomegranate trees.
With the new building, Hillel leaders no longer need to count on the Friday night meal as the main attraction for prospective members. A whole slew of activities have been created, including visiting speakers and entertainers, movie nights, weekly barbeques, Israeli dancing, Krav Maga martial arts classes and a vocal ensemble. Hiking and kayaking are held in the mountains and at the beaches of Santa Barbara. The students also host student Maccabiah games every year.
"We're very careful in making sure everyone feels an equal sense of ownership here," says Sabra Rahel, program director. Hillel strives to create a pluralistic setting where Jews of all kinds can feel comfortable and attended to, she said. This year, Hillel will put particular emphasis on students of Sephardic backgrounds.
The scope of the new center makes planning programs and attracting students a lot easier, student leaders say. The aesthetics of the building, combined with its space for socializing, studying and schmoozing, are themselves effective PR tools. "The students seem very entusiastic," said building manager Beth Weinberg. "It's wonderful to see them using the building."
Cohen's humble and relaxed manner belie the tenacity and hard work he put into seeing the $3.5 million building project to completion.
When he first arrived, there were only about 15 Hillel members. Today there are about 300 active members, an executive board consisting of 10 leaders and a Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow responsible for outreach. There are still many more Jewish students to draw on. Approximately 1,500 to 2,000 Jewish students attend UCSB, most of who are nominally affiliated with Judaism.
Cohen's relationships with students and the Hillel have grown over time. It's been 17 years since Cohen was first greeted by the social worker at the URC. Every Saturday morning, he finds an outlet for a more traditional rabbinic role as he leads a traditional, egalitarian minyan for his students, faculty and residents of the growing Santa Barbara Jewish community, including his own wife and two children.
"Even after I came here for a number of years, I thought I'd do this for a short time until I'd be ready to be a rabbi of the congregation," Cohen says. "It turned out to be something that provided me with new challenges and lots of room to grow. I feel just as stimulated and challenged by this job as I did when I started."