In September 1960, I hitched a ride from New York to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois with Sid Fisher, another first year graduate student who had also enrolled there. Fresh from New York University with an industrial engineering degree, I needed a graduate degree in another engineering field to be taken serious in the engineering field. (Today, Industrial Engineering is a valued discipline but back then, well, it was a different story for sure.) The University of Illinois offered me a teaching assistantship in their Mechanical Engineering Department with free tuition and a small monthly stipend and off I went.
Given the fact that I had gone through elementary school, high school and college only in the Bronx, traveling 800 miles west to the farmlands of central Illinois was a dramatic change from the ghetto in which I had grown up. Remember that in those years the Bronx was 57% Jewish.
The first thing I did when I arrived on campus after checking into the new graduate dorm, was to trot over to 503 East John Street to meet Rabbi H. Hirsch Cohen, then the Hillel Director on campus. Given some ritual talents I possessed, I asked him if he needed assistance for the upcoming high holy days at which point he said, “Let’s go to lunch.” There were, at the time, no kosher facilities in the community so we went to the Colonial Room of the Illini Union and ate there.
Interestingly enough one of the first questions he asked me was if I was romantically involved with anyone. When I answered no, he said “I want you to meet the Hillel President” and, 17 months later she and I were married. That marriage lasted 27 years until her passing in 1989. He may not have been the greatest rabbi but he had good qualifications as a matchmaker.
Rabbi Cohen filled me in on what passed for Jewish life in town. Basically it was Hillel, a number of nominally Jewish fraternities and a Reform synagogue, Temple Sinai, whose cantorial soloist on the evening of Yom Kippur was a Christian. That was rural America in those days.
58 years later the fabric of Jewish life on campus has changed dramatically. Hillel, which was the very first Hillel in the United States, and which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023, is both a hotbed of Jewish life and a catalyst for Jewish communal growth as well. Now headquartered in a relatively new, 10 year old building at the same location as it was when I was there, the building contains three synagogue sections so that, no matter one’s preference, there is a service that meets it. Erez Cohen, the young, dynamic director, who, like me, also met his wife at Hillel, has created a community that knows it is Jewish and celebrates it.
For example, keeping kosher in Champaign-Urbana is no longer a challenge. Hillel itself operates Café Sababa which is open every weekday for lunch. Chabad is also present on campus and offers kosher dining every night of the week at the LAR residence halls. Prepackaged kosher deli sandwiches and salads are available at the Illini Union. In addition, Hillel has been active, in cooperation with the Va’ad Ho’ir of St Louis, in certifying one other campus establishment, Cold Stone Creamery and is working on at least one more.
Concomitantly the local resident Jewish community has also grown. The decision a few years ago by Israel’s AMDOCS to open an operation in Champaign has brought a significant number of Israelis into the community and has helped to reinvigorate Jewish life in the area as well. Who would have believed so many years ago that there would even be an eruv in the community (a virtual “fence” that makes it permissible for observant Jews to carry on the Sabbath outside their homes) and a ritual bath (Mikve Mei Leah) for those who observe the religious strictures related to family purity.
On a personal level, I was invited back to the university in December 2016 and took a somewhat nostalgic tour of the campus, visited my old office in the Mechanical Engineering Building and, of course, stopped by Hillel to experience the vibrancy of Jewish student life. It was a world of difference from 56 years earlier and, in no small way, testimony to the amazing work of the director, Israeli-born Erez Cohen, who is, indeed, making a difference in the lives of Jewish students on campus.
When Hillel there celebrates its 100th anniversary in just a few years, it will bask in the knowledge that what started as a germ of an idea by some young people at a university in rural America, has developed into the premier center of Jewish life on campuses throughout America, just as it has at the University of Illinois. May they go from strength to strength.