Hillel: The International Jewish Organization Founded in Champaign

The Hillel Foundation, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, traces its beginnings to the University of Illinois. In 1921, the young Rabbi Benjamin Frankel began serving in Champaign’s Temple Sinai. [1] Meeting the Jewish students on campus, he observed that they were “passively Jewish” [2] without the proper support and community available to allow their Jewish identity to strengthen during their years of study. “He realized they were without Jewish influence in the most formative years of their lives. He felt that they would go out to lead in their various communities with little thought of their Jewishness and their Judaism,” Rabbi Alfred M. Cohen wrote of Frankel.[3]

Yom Kippur, 1955. Record Series 41/69/6.

Yom Kippur, 1955. Record Series 41/69/6.

Rabbi Frankel was determined to solve this problem at the University of Illinois and at campuses across the country. In 1923, he founded the Hillel Foundation. [4] Not only did the Foundation provide a place for Jewish students to learn about their heritage, but it also served as a social outlet during a time when Jews were not accepted into many fraternities or other groups on college campuses. [5] The following year, the national organization B’nai B’rith took over Hillel Foundation and named Frankel National Director, charging him with the task of expanding the organization nationwide. Hillel began to grow rapidly, and by 1935 there were eleven Foundations. [6]

 

 

Hillel Foundation, 1949. Record Series 41/69/6.

Hillel Foundation, 1949. Record Series 41/69/6.

Hillel continued to spread across the nation as World War II began in Europe. A Refugee Student Program was established by Hillel as a way for Jewish students in Europe to complete their studies at American Universities. This program sponsored the education of 124 students.[7] Throughout the next several decades, Hillel expanded nationally and internationally to meet the needs of Jewish students. Local Hillel Foundations focused on building a spiritual, social, and educational community and helping students maintain strong connections to their heritage. In the 1990s, Hillel began working with Taglit-Birthright Israel to provide trips to Israel for Jews between the ages of 17 and 26. [8] Over 400,000 participants have experienced Israel as a part of this program.[9]

Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2000. Record Series 41/69/6.

Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2000. Record Series 41/69/6.

 

 

Hillel Foundation today boasts 550 national sites as well as 56 international locations. The organization is known for its educational and philanthropic work worldwide. 94% of Hillel participants say that Judaism will continue to play an important role in their lives after graduation. [10] At the University of Illinois, the birthplace of the entire Hillel movement, Illini Hillel continues to offer a safe and welcoming environment for the nearly 3,500 Jewish students on campus today.[11] The Hillel Foundation Records (1924-1928, 1938-2009) and the Hillel Post (1924-1947) are available for research at the University of Illinois Archives Research Center.

 

 

[1] Wetcher, Jerome “The History of Hillel” The Hillel Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 1, January 20, 1928. Hillel Foundation Records, 1924-1928, 1938-2009, RS 41/69/6, Box 10, University of Illinois Archives.

[2] Rubin, Jeff “The Road to Renaissance: Hillel History 1923-2002.”

[3] Cohen, Alfred M. “Consciousness of Jewishness” The Hillel Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 1, January 20, 1928. Hillel Foundation Records, 1924-1928, 1938-2009, RS 41/69/6, Box 10, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] Hillel Bulletin, Vol. 1, November 13. 1924. Hillel Foundation Records, 1924-1928, 1938-2009, RS 41/69/6, Box 10, University of Illinois Archives.

[5] Lee, Alfred McClung. Fraternities Without Brotherhood: A Study of Prejudice on the American Campus. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

[6] Rubin, Jeff “The Road to Renaissance: Hillel History 1923-2002.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Hillel TimelineThe Hillel Foundation

[9] “Our AchievementsTaglit-Birthright Israel 

[10] “Our ImpactThe Hillel Foundation

[11] “The Cohen CenterIllini Hillel

 

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