Hillel at 90

Hill Street Go Blues

Friday night at Hillel House. (Image: U-M Hillel.)

Friday night at Hillel House. (Image: U-M Hillel.)

It’s Friday night at 1429 Hill Street in Ann Arbor. The kitchen is bustling with the evening meal prep — plates are piled high with rice pilaf, roasted chicken, beef bourguignon, and plenty of freshly baked challah bread. It smells just like home — away from home — and that’s the point. It’s Shabbat dinner at U-M’s Hillel House: open invitation and no charge. High fives, handshakes, and warm hugs abound as Hillel members crowd into the dining room, settling in for a traditional “family dinner” with Jewish friends, classmates, and new acquaintances.

The weekly Shabbat dinner is a longstanding ritual at Hillel House, founded in 1926. It’s just one of many activities and support services Hillel has provided to the University’s Jewish students for nearly a century. At the time of its inception, U-M’s Hillel was only the fourth institution of its kind in the country.

“Hillel is a huge success in terms of providing a Jewish but social environment which is still very intellectual,” says Andrei Markovits, the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies.

Markovits is co-author with Kenneth Garner of a new book, Hillel at Michigan 1926/27-1945: Struggles of Jewish Identity in a Pivotal Era.

Take me home

The original Hillel. (Image: Bentley Historical Library.)

The original Hillel. (Image: Bentley Historical Library.)

Hillel was born of a confluence of events following World War I, from increased Jewish university enrollment, the contrast between assimilated German Jews and those from Eastern Europe, and as an alternative to Jewish fraternities, Markovits says.

While intuitively one might think Hillel would be born in places with larger Jewish populations, Markovits notes Hillel’s “social function is much more salient in a place like Wisconsin and Michigan than it is in New Jersey and New York.”

He further writes in his book, “being fewer in numbers, the fear of Jews losing their Jewish identity – be that mainly of an ethnic, religious, or cultural variety, or as was frequently the case, an undefinable mixture of all three – was more pronounced in the Midwest than on the East Coast.”

It would not be until 1939 that Hillel was in New York, though precursors, like the Menorah Society, had existed at various institutions.

Social studies

Hillel partly owes its 1923 birth at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to non-Jewish Biblical history professor Edward Chauncey Baldwin. Troubled by the lack of religious knowledge among Jewish students, Baldwin worked with Chicago’s Rabbi Louis Mann and Rabbi Benjamin Frankel, to create the organization. Hillel’s name honors Hillel the Elder, a Babylonian-born Jewish sage who died in Jerusalem at the beginning of the first century.

Hillel, Markovits says, offered a counterweight to the growing importance of Jewish fraternities at a time when Jews often were excluded from other social groups. Hillel was “not only about the mind, but about the body or about the heart or social. This is very important because Hillel was worried that in fact the Jewish fraternities were going to completely monopolize that,” he says.

Hillel’s influence went beyond Jewish student life, eventually contributing to the wider culture at U-M, Markovits says. Student leaders invited Jewish alumni and football heroes Benny Friedman (1923-26) and Harry Newman (1929-32) back to campus. In addition, the Hillel Players entertained fellow students with plays by Arthur Miller, BA ’38, and other artists. In fact, Miller’s play Honors at Dawn was inspired by an incident in 1935 in which several U-M students — most of whom had Jewish names — were expelled. Miller won a Hopwood Award for the work.

The American-Jewish identity

Student religious preference cards cataloged by the Student Christian Association in the 1920s and 1930s indicate about 10 percent of U-M’s student population was Jewish at the time of Hillel’s founding, says Karla Goldman, the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work and professor of Judaic Studies.

This was a tumultuous period for Jewish applicants, whose numbers were on the rise. Many institutions sought to limit Jewish enrollment and developed an unspoken quota system. Schools began to require students to submit essays and recommendations, and to sit for interviews.

“The major reason for these changes was to limit the number of Jews,” says Goldman, whose research has both challenged and corroborated U-M’s assertion that it rejected any such system. For example, while many university applications asked candidates to cite their race and religion, U-M did not. However, Goldman says, Michigan did ask questions like, “where were your parents born? But [U-M] did not include questions [used by other institutions] like asking for any previous names held by the applicant or their father.”

Despite early efforts to be more open to Jewish students, says Goldman, “U-M was not a haven. There were limits to its openness. You find that reflected in the way the Hillel newspaper talks about pressures on Jewish identity and sometimes tries to prescribe the way Jews should behave.”

Hillel students were “defining what American-Jewish identity was going to be,” Goldman says. “Going to Michigan was a big Americanizing experience, as they departed the immigrant family and neighborhoods from which many of them came.”

The Hillel International College Guide estimates Jewish students now comprise about 16 percent of U-M undergraduates. Hillel continues to be both a contrasting and complementary force with campus Greek life, says Executive Director Tilly Shames, noting, “many students can find a Jewish community for themselves in both.”

“We think a lot about how to reach the student who wouldn’t step foot in Hillel and how to lower the barriers for them to access Jewish life,” Shames says. “We also integrate ourselves into the campus community more, partnering with other cultural, social, educational, and faith-based groups so that we can know each other’s faiths and cultures and communities better.”

Importantly, Shames says that while women have long been important to Hillel, “what has changed is the role of women in leadership at the staff level. Our students see a female executive director and a female rabbi [Lisa Stella]. That impacts how they see themselves in taking on leadership roles, both in our Hillel and in the Jewish community more broadly.”

Educating and inspiring

Hillel House today. (Image: U-M Hillel.)

Hillel House today. (Image: U-M Hillel.)

Hillel is not the only place where Jewish life thrives on campus, or even on Hill Street, home to three Jewish organizations.

The Chabad House of Ann Arbor was founded in 1975 inside a former Jewish fraternity house and is located near the Ford School of Public Policy.

“We are here to educate those who know only a little bit about Judaism,” says Director Rabbi Aharon Goldstein. “One of the misconceptions people have is that Chabad House is for the Orthodox, which would be like selling skis in Florida. We are here to help every Jew to learn more about their Judaism, on their own level.”

Chabad sends students into new environments “with the goal of educating and inspiring people within their Judaism,” Rabbi Goldstein says. “Our purpose here is to reach out and search for Jews wherever they are, and whoever they are, no matter their experience or their education.”

The Chabad House also offers classes on learning to read Hebrew, the Talmud, and the works of Jewish philosophers and mystics, among other subjects.

Hill Street also is home to the Jewish Resource Center (JRC). The JRC opened in the 1990s and is undergoing a major expansion to accommodate its growing roster of programs (including cooking classes).

Director Rabbi Fully Eisenberger says JRC programs offer a “tremendous amount of spiritual guidance,” from mental health services and Shabbat dinners to its signature Maimonides educational series and programs for women.

“I am an orthodox rabbi for non-orthodox students,” says Eisenberger. “We believe in teaching the traditional Torah in a loving, exciting environment.”

Most of his students hail from the East Coast, practicing “once-a-year Judaism,” connecting to their religion only during the High Holidays or Passover. Rabbi Eisenberger says his goal is to expand beyond that, bringing Judaism into many aspects of students’ personal lives.

It’s a sentiment in accordance with all the Jewish organizations on Michigan’s campus.

(Top image: U-M Hillel Facebook.) 


  1. Naomi Kauffman - January 1967

    I was a student admitted to the music school who transferred to LS&A. I came from an Orthodox home in Chicago. I originally started going to Hillel in 1963, ny freshman year, 2-3 times a week because it was the only place I could get a Kosher meal. Then it became a social gathering place where I met like-minded students. After Shabbat, other students walked me back to my dorm. It was an anchor for me who knew only a few students at the U of M. I was gratified to see the number of classes currently being offered by Chabad and Hillel as well as the outreach to other student interfaith organizations. There is no doubt that Hillel played a significant role in my years at Michigan.


  2. Mike Jefferson - 1979

    It is truly amazing how Hillel has endured and thrived in spite of the hostile environment of anti-Semitism on the Michigan campus fostered by the hard core left and Islamists. Way to go Hillel for being a beacon on light in a sea of darkness, revealing the true intolerance of the so called “tolerant” left and their crazed compatriots. Freedom, truth, and justice will prevail.


  3. G.M. Freeman - 1950 Rackham

    An excellent example of how we should treat those who have differing convictions.


  4. Free Polazzo - 1968

    i went as a graduate student in the Business School and did not hear about Hillel, while there. Hope that Hillel reaches out to the graduate student body.
    PS: Perhaps the article just did not address the grad student involvement?


  5. Mark Shook - LSA 1966

    To its credit, UM Hillel attempted to make all kinds of Jews welcome. From time to time Hillel would offer Reform services. In the winter of 1965, my fiancé and I would attend those Hillel Shabbat services designated as “Reform.” One very snowy EREV SHABBAT evening we were informed by a Hillel director that the guest organist could not make the snow covered drive from Detroit. Too dangerous. The director announced to the congregation that since there would be no organist, we would do a Conservative service instead. Since that time our understanding of liturgy essentials has improved. Six years later I was ordained a rabbi and last January my wife, Carol (Strauss, LSA 1966) and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. Thank you Hillel.


  6. Henry Lowendorf - 1964 LSA

    It’s wonderful that Michigan Hillel supports a female rabbi and ED. But does it support a diversity of views from Jewish students? For example, are Jewish students allowed to be critical of Israeli policies at Michigan Hillel? Are they allowed or encouraged to hold forums with Palestinian students? How open is Hillel?


  7. Elizabeth Hecht

    My dad, Rabbi Adolph H. Fink, was the U of M’s first Hillel director. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1925 and Hillel was his first position. While in Cincinnati his best friend was Ben Frankel and when Ben Frankel died at age 30 , my father thought that carrying on Ben’s pioneering work was a good idea. At that time there were about 1,200 students who attended Hillel. He told me that the U of MI was the location of the second Hillel. But, through the years I note that other universities have usurped that position!
    My grand daughter, now in high school, is planning to apply to the University and I hope that she gets in and goes to Hillel.
    All best, Elizabeth Hecht, Ph.D.


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