| Opening of Florence and Chafetz Hillel House heralds new era for BU’s Jewish community
By Brian Fitzgerald
Avi Heller could barely contain his joy during the May 12 grand opening and dedication of BU’s new $16 million Florence and Chafetz Hillel House. Then again, why curb enthusiasm on such a momentous occasion? “Ashreinu! Mah tov chelkeinu!” he said in Hebrew. Then he translated: “How fortunate are we!”
Heller (UNI'97) pointed out that this day was a long time coming. The possibility of a new Hillel House was raised about 10 years ago, when he was still an undergraduate. Now a rabbi in Boca Raton, Fla., Heller was happy to be back in Boston to express his elation at the new center of Jewish campus life on Bay State Road. The 33,000-square-foot facility is twice the size of the old Hillel House, which was built in 1953. “This is a day in which we have a lot to be thankful for,” he said.
The festivities began at the School of Law Auditorium, where a Torah procession led participants to the new four-story building, with its exterior of granite, limestone, brick, and copper. Three Torahs were carried under a chuppah, a cloth canopy supported by four poles. Then, a mezuzah — a case containing a scroll with scriptural text — was placed on the exterior entryway, signifying the blessing of the building.
Guests at the event, hosted by the BU Hillel’s Boston Board, Student Board, and National Advisory Board, included naming patron Irwin Chafetz (CAS’58, Hon.’04), family members of fellow naming patron Leonard Florence (SMG’54, Hon.’01), BU Hillel Director Rabbi Joseph Polak (Hon.’95), President ad interim Aram Chobanian, Trustee Chairman Alan Leventhal, Presidents Emeriti John Silber and Jon Westling, Oscar Wasserman, chairman of the BU Hillel Board of Directors, and Jeffrey Parker (SMG’77), National Advisory Board chairman.
As they made their way to the fourth-floor chapel area for the dedication ceremony, guests marveled at the building’s features, including large windows, cherrywood accents, and a main staircase made of yellow-toned granite from India. Designed by Steffian Bradley Architects, Inc., the BU Jewish community’s “home away from home,” as Parker called it, has separate chapels for Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform worship, expanded kitchens, dining and meeting facilities, state-of-the-art Internet access, a coffee bar open to the public, and an art gallery.
“This is a building of which we can be very proud,” said Wasserman. “Thousands of students will enter a most inviting facility and be able to study, learn, and participate in programs here.”
Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, with 500 regional centers. The Florence and Chafetz Hillel House, said Westling, “is an enlargement of what is the most effective Hillel program of any university.” Indeed, Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg (CAS’73) credited Polak with revitalizing BU’s Hillel program, making it “a center of vibrant learning” when he came to the University in 1970.
Several speakers fondly recalled their own undergraduate experiences at BU Hillel, including Heller and Parker, who met their future wives at Hillel House.
When BU Hillel Student Board President Ari Dach (CAS’06) entered the University as a freshman three years ago, he “felt like a small fish in a big pond.” But Hillel House provided him with a familiar and friendly community, he said, “and accepted me into its large yet warm family. Having a place to meet other students with whom I shared so many things in common was extremely comforting. It enabled me to make a smooth transition into a college atmosphere. The idea of having such a wonderful new building excites me about the future and our potential to impact the Boston University Jewish community. The Florence and Chafetz Hillel House will be able to accommodate more people physically, as well as bring a sense of freshness and vitality.”
Jenna Toplin (COM’05), president of BU Students for Israel, said the new building “offers numerous student meeting spaces, lecture rooms for speakers, and plenty of room for cultural events, all of which will be heavily utilized. It will be an agent of encouragement for more participation” in its activities.
Although Hillel has offered social, cultural, and religious programs at BU for more than 50 years, Polak explained why a larger facility was needed: the University’s Jewish community has increased sixfold since 1953, to more than 4,000 students, and there has been a growing interest in Hillel’s programs. He praised the quality of the building’s construction and thanked all who played a part in making the facility a reality, including benefactors and supporters of a vibrant chaplaincy.
“This is an extraordinary marriage between the Jewish heritage and a major university,” he said.