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.
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.
Over 80 years later, Hillel has touched the lives of thousands of students, strengthening Jewish identities, building their connections with Israel, molding future generations of Jewish leadership. On Dec 4th, 2007, students came to experience and enjoy the most exciting new addition to the University landscape, The Margie K. and Louis N. Cohen Center for Jewish Life.