Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life was founded right here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1923. In 1921, a small group of college students at the University of Illinois came together under the wing of a local rabbinic student named Benjamin Frankel. The 24-year old, who was interning at nearby Temple Sinai in Champaign, described his Jewish peers as being in a state of “intellectual flux.”
As the children of recent Jewish immigrants, many were struggling to strike a balance between being American and being Jewish. Frankel worked closely with the university’s Jewish student population of approximately 300 students to strengthen their dual identities. When he was ordained in 1923, the group began meeting more formally – in a rented room above a barbershop in downtown Champaign. Rabbi Frankel and his students were ready to expand but they needed resources…and a name.
Hillel's Giant 104 Inch Menorah
Frankel reached out to the local B’nai B’rith for support and campus leaders started to pay attention. Edward Chauncey Baldwin, a non-Jewish professor of English at the university, famously challenged Chicago Jewish leader Rabbi Louis Mann, asking: “Don’t you think the time has come when a Jewish student might educate his mind without losing his soul?”
From there, Frankel, Baldwin and Mann began working together and their fundraising efforts quickly developed the part-time student program into a full-time organization. Impressively, the men raised the entire first-year budget - $12,000 - in a single luncheon. The as-yet-unnamed Hillel was off and running.
It didn’t take long for Frankel and a board of lay leaders to assign the name Hillel, a tribute to one of Judaism’s greatest teachers. Abram L. Sachar, a history professor at the university as well as Frankel’s friend, colleague and successor, called the name a “felicitous choice” that appealed not only to Jews, but to Professor Baldwin and the Christian fellowship that pioneered the foundation.
B’nai B’rith adopted the student organization at the University of Illinois and in quick succession, Hillels opened up at the University of Wisconsin(1924), The Ohio State University (1925) and the University of Michigan (1926).
Tragically, Rabbi Frankel died of heart disease in 1927 at the age of 30 though his legacy continued to thrive.
B'nai Brith Magazine 1924-25 (PDF) - B'nai B'rith adopted Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1924. These articles describe the earliest mission statements and programs. Courtesy, Philip Lax Archive
Address of the Adolf Kraus, President, B'nai Brith (1925) (PDF) - The president of B'nai B'rith explains the organization’s objectives in adopting Hillel. "[I]f we adhere to the program mapped out and establish and extend the religious foundation work as rapidly as circumstances will permit into other schools where the greatest necessity exists, then within a few years the religious work so conducted by [B'nai B'rith]… will be universally recognized as one of the most powerful influences in American Jewish life." Courtesy, Philip Lax Archive
"Converting Jews to Judaism" (1939) (PDF) - As Hillel grew, there were too many campuses in need, and as such, they began Hillel "extensions" for those campuses that could not afford a full-time foundation. This also includes a section on the first woman Hillel executive, Mrs. J.J. Taubenhaus.
Hillel Handbook (Volume 2 - 1940/1) (PDF) - By this time, Hillel is on 50 campuses, and serves 30,000 students. They published this volume to help students understand the resources available to them on campus.
The B'nai Brith Hillel Foundations: Retrospect and Prospect (1944) (PDF) - Written by Ohio State University's Hillel Director, he took stock of the current situation at Hillel and looked toward the future.
"Hillel" (1945) - A brochure, full of pictures, discussing Hillel's work at the time, including serving student soldiers on campus.
Pages 1 -10
Pages 11 - 20
Pages 21 - 36
The B'nai Brith Foundation: Five Decades of Service (1973) - A series of essays about the Hillel experience, including an interview of Abram Sachar, Hillel National Director for many years.
Reengineering the Jewish Organization: The Transformation of Hillel 1988 - 2000 (PDF) - Hillel's renaissance of Jewish life on campus has been reported and praised in the last few years.
General History of Hillel International:
Road to Renaissance (PDF) - Hillel's 80-year history comes alive in "The Road to Renaissance: Hillel 1923-2003," the first comprehensive retrospective of the Jewish campus organization.
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