Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


HILLEL, college-campus organization. Jews have been attracted to college and university life since the Haskalah and emancipation opened the doors to higher secular learning. Nowhere has this been more widespread than in the United States where the growth of public and private higher education coincided with expanding economic opportunity and massive European immigration. Colleges and universities in the U.S., reflecting agrarian values, often located in rural areas or small towns far from the major urban Jewish population centers. By the 1920s, more and more Jewish young adults left their homes, communities, and families to matriculate at land-grant public universities where basic Jewish social, educational, and religious needs went largely unmet and where Christian campus ministries and local churches welcomed opportunities to fill the void.

Hillel began as a classic campus ministry in 1923 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Edward Chauncey Baldwin, a philo-Semitic Congregationalist English professor, concerned about the absence of organized Jewish life at Illinois, lobbied Jewish businessmen in Chicago to hire a rabbi and establish a Jewish campus ministry. The Chicago funders appointed Benjamin Frankel, a young, charismatic Reform rabbi, as the first director of the fledgling campus ministry who named the organization for the first-century sage, Hillel, a symbol of open inquiry, lifelong learning, and pluralistic values. The name also resonated with Christian clergy and academics who recognized Hillel as an influential teacher and near-contemporary of Jesus. Operating out of a rented room over a barbershop, Frankel framed key elements of the organization. Unlike the Menorah Society, an earlier student-run club founded at Harvard University in 1906, the University of Illinois Hillel created an infrastructure with a campus professional, dedicated space, and a community-supported budget. In order to sustain and expand Hillel, Frankel also sought national sponsorship. Rebuffed by the Reform movement, he convinced B'nai B'rith to adopt the organization in 1925, and then quickly launched a second Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, and a third at Ohio State University before suddenly and tragically passing away in 1927 at the age of 30.

The Reform movement's historic rejection and B'nai B'rith's timely embrace allowed Hillel to adopt a multi-denominational, pluralistic framework as the all-inclusive Jewish community on campus. Ideally positioned to grow, the campus organization, under the aegis of the largest Jewish fraternal organization in the United States, B'nai B'rith, had grassroots support, deep pockets for that time, a strong interest in Jewish youth, and a big-tent philosophy. Under the leadership of Abram *Sachar, a University of Illinois history instructor and Frankel intimate, who would become director of the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundations prior to founding Brandeis University, Hillel expanded rapidly by hiring rabbis – rabbis attracted to academic life who in the late 20th century might go into Judaic Studies – to provide critical spiritual, cultural, educational, and social services to Jewish campus communities throughout the United States. Local B'nai B'rith lodges undertook efforts to provide Hillel Houses on or near universities enabling Hillel to serve as "the synagogue on campus," a place where Jewish students could celebrate Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, gain access to kosher food and pastoral counseling, participate in informal Jewish learning opportunities, and socialize with other Jews. In an era when young people typically married in their early twenties, Hillel played a significant role in Jewish dating and courtship. On residential campuses, especially, Hillel offered a "home away from home" and a refuge to Jewish students in an often Christian environment. Hillel professionals with strong Judaic backgrounds pioneered serious university-level Jewish learning in the decades before Jewish Studies earned academic acceptance. When Judaic Studies positions opened in the 1960s and 1970s, many moved seamlessly into the academic world. Hillel also partnered with other Jewish organizations to rescue and resettle Jewish academics and university students before, during, and after the Holocaust.

Sachar played a seminal role in shaping the organization through the Great Depression and World War II. His emphasis on Jewish peoplehood, civilization, and diversity largely shielded Hillel from inter- and intra-denominational conflicts. His pluralistic vision and academic orientation drew like-minded rabbis and Jewish educators who eschewed denominationalism, embraced academic life, championed social activism and preferred informal interaction with young adults to more formal ministrations with multi-generational congregants.

Before the 1960s, the world of Jewish college students generally reflected a deeper Jewish connection. Parents or grandparents were likely to have immigrated to the United States from the centers of Jewish life in Europe. Living in or near urban Jewish communities, the majority of Jewish students shared a basic familiarity, if not a complete understanding, of Jewish ritual, language, and culture. Intermarriage rates were low. Affiliation rates were high. In addition, antisemitism reinforced group identity and limited other outlets and options. Admission quotas held down the number and percentage of Jews at many elite universities. Fraternities, sororities, honor societies, and other organizations openly or tacitly restricted their membership to white Christians. Hillel offered no such barriers to leadership, involvement or socialization as the number of Jewish college students grew as a result of the GI Bill of Rights and the entry of more and more Jewish families into the middle class.

Not surprisingly, the social changes of the 1960s had an immense impact on Jewish life on campus. Jewish men and women were among the beneficiaries of the civil rights revolution as barriers fell, new opportunities arose, and Jews increasingly participated in every aspect of campus life. Jewish students also disproportionately embraced and even led the culture wars of the 1960s, with their concomitant intergenerational conflict, sexual freedom, drug use, radical politics, and anti-institutional bias. Like other campus ministries, Hillel struggled to respond to the challenges of a new era and to be taken seriously in an age of diminished support for organized religious life. Although a number of individual Hillels and Hillel directors rose to the challenge and planted the seeds of organizational transformation, the movement as a whole became marginalized, maligned, and factionalized through the next two decades.

The social upheavals of the 1960s also affected B'nai B'rith, the parent organization, as fraternal organizations lost their primacy in America. Financial cutbacks by B'nai B'rith exacerbated Hillel's problems. Hillel lacked the ability to expand to new campuses with large Jewish enrollments; to recruit and retain quality Jewish professionals; and to attract large numbers of Jewish students. Although Jewish federations began to play an increasingly important role in the governance and funding of local and regional Hillels, they offered little organizational vision. Viewed as ineffective and inconsequential, Hillels were often dismissed for serving both too few students and too many of the wrong kind, the proverbial "Jewish geeks and nerds," who were unable to fit in and find a place within the larger campus community. Even the name "Hillel" became a questionable brand and a potential impediment to revitalizing Jewish campus life.

The decision of the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation to hire Richard Joel in 1988 symbolized the desperate condition of the organization. Joel was not a rabbi, in an organization historically identified with the rabbinate. He was a Modern Orthodox Jew in an organization desperate to attract non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews. A former prosecuting attorney and law school administrator, he had no prior involvement with Hillel as a student, professional, or lay leader.

Joel dramatically transformed Hillel during his fourteen-year tenure. Articulating a vision of a revitalized Hillel able "to provoke" a Jewish renaissance in America, Joel jettisoned the synagogue model to promote a vision of campus communities supporting a wide range of Jewish organizations and interest groups. He eliminated rabbinic ordination as the sine qua non of Hillel employment by expanding and diversifying the ranks of Hillel professionals. He encouraged Hillels to eliminate student membership and dues and championed open-architecture participation over the more traditional affiliation model. He encouraged Hillels to become less building-centered, even as more and newer buildings opened each year, to connect with Jewish students in multiple campus and community settings. He attracted major financial support from key Jewish philanthropists and foundations. He engineered Hillel's independence from B'nai B'rith and deepened the partnership with a Jewish Federation system alarmed by the implications of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS). Like Sachar, Joel would depart from Hillel to become the chief executive of a university with his appointment as Yeshiva University President in 2003.

Hillel entered the 21st century stronger and more vital than ever with a new national headquarters in Washington, D.C., a budget quadruple that of a decade earlier, affiliates at every major university in the U.S. with significant Jewish student populations (except ironically Yeshiva University), a growing presence globally in Israel, the former Soviet Union, and South America and signature programs and partnerships in the areas of Israel advocacy, community service, arts and culture, student engagement, Jewish learning and celebration, and global exchange. With approximately 250 affiliates in the U.S. and Canada serving college and university students on more than 500 campuses, an additional three dozen campus and community-based affiliates in other countries, and a global budget in excess of $60 million, Hillel is viewed widely as one of the early 21st century's major success stories in Jewish organizational life. Thirty-four percent of Jewish undergraduate students in the U.S. participate in Hillel activities, according to a market research study conducted in 2005. Although significantly higher than in prior eras and higher than other Jewish campus organizations, Hillel would face unending challenges in its efforts to double the percentage of Jewish university students searching for memory, meaning and connection in a dangerous and rapidly changing world.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.