The New Hillel

UW–Madison's new Hillel building an exciting and welcome replacement for Jewish and non-Jewish students alike

Sep 14, 2009

Walking down Langdon Street, also known as UW–Madison’s “frat and sorority row,” the gait of my walk slowed as I gawked at the futuristic architecture of stainless steel and Jerusalem stone of the UW’s newly remodeled Jewish Center for Study, also known as Hillel.

After all, the previous Hillel building was an outdated, two-story structure squished between a Langdon apartment building and The Campus Inn. One of the floors was mostly used for offices and equipped with moveable walls to create necessary space for the Hillel’s various programs.

Renamed the Barbara Hochberg Center for Jewish Life, Hillel’s new building now stands out as somewhat of a spectacle. As the sunlight beamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows, I was warmly welcomed by Hillel’s executive director, Greg Steinberger. He immediately opened up as we sat in the nearly finished kosher café.

“In the previous Hillel building, students felt they had to be an attendee or a leader [of a group within Hillel]. Their studies were meant for the library and hanging out was meant for State Street or the Union. [So] they wanted a place where didn’t feel like they needed to be an attendee—they wanted their center for Jewish life to be a place where they could meet friends, study, but also be involved.”

The UW’s Hillel was founded in 1925—the second oldest Hillel organization in the United States. Erected on the same soil as its predecessor, the new Hillel boasts an impressive amount of amenities: a kosher café (the only one in Madison), a library, game room, large religious service rooms, a fourth floor outdoor basketball court, a cardio and weight room, and meeting spaces for rental.

“Hillel is [meant] to bring Jewish students together,” Steinberger says, and “also to bridge the gap between the Jews and non-Jews.” The new center clearly provides more than enough space for this to be accomplished.

“Our intentions are not to missionize the students of Madison, but to allow those who are even the slightest bit interested in the option to learn about Jewish life in a comfortable environment at any pace they choose,” says Steinberger.

Such a large facility begs the question: What kind of person does the Barbara Hochberg Center for Jewish Life intend to attract? “Hillel needs to remain pluralistic,” says Steinberger. “Some people within our Jewish community expect a religiously motivated Hillel, while others expect a more culturally Jewish experience. This has been a conversation for some time.”

The new building allows students to experience their Judaism at their own pace by offering student led reformed, conservative and orthodox Shabbat services simultaneously.

The new space also allows the organization to extend a hand out to the non-Jewish community of Madison. Various sororities and faculty members have asked to host weekly meetings at the new center. Interestingly, the Muslim student association came with hat in hand, in need of space. Kosher meat is acceptable to both Jews and Muslims and with the addition of Hillel’s new kosher café, seven Iftar dinners have been planned during the month of September when the Islamic tradition of Ramadan is observed. The Muslim students will conduct prayers on their own, followed by a meal with Jewish students. This combination of cultures represents one of the ways that Hillel’s new facility can enrich both Jewish and Madisonian life.

By reaching out beyond the Jewish community, Hillel shows that the Jewish community does not intend turn inward. As Steinberger says, “this is ultimately about Jewish life in its totality. Our intentions are to create a vibrant Jewish community that is involved with social action, politics, education and philanthropy. If Hillel can do these things well, then Hillel and the Jewish community become a place and culture with a purpose.”

The Barbara Hochberg Center for Jewish Life (Hillel), 611 Langdon St. 256-8361.

Drew Goldblatt is an editorial intern for Madison Magazine.

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