“It’s unbelievable,” exclaimed Abby Baron, a student at Bradley University, “Juniors and seniors who never came to Hillel before are all of sudden joining our community.” Her excitement from the increased student participation could not be contained, “It’s because of the new building. We have a dairy kitchen and a meat kitchen, a sanctuary, a dining area for 100, more social spaces, a library…there is so much more we can do to involve Jews on campus with our new Hillel house!”
On Sept. 21, the dedication ceremony was held for the brand new Hillel house at Bradley University in Peoria, built through the efforts of the Bradley Hillel corporate board, with support from the university and the local community. Bradley Hillel was founded in 1947 and in 1965 they opened their first Hillel house thanks to the fundraising efforts of local philanthropist, Sam Stone. The new house is ready for the new school year, and with it, a renewed energy from the students, faculty and the Jewish community of Peoria.
Bradley University has about 250 Jewish students out of a total undergraduate population of 5,000. The new house is a big step towards not only establishing a strong Jewish community, but in helping it grow as well. The first Hillel Shabbat dinner at the new building already brought in more than 70 Jewish students—almost double the participation of prior dinners. With their renewed presence on campus, new Jewish journeys have begun for students who previously did not see themselves as part of the community. “We’ve got a young lady who is a Junior, and she had never been to Hillel before,” said Rabbi Daniel Bogard, the new director of Bradley Hillel, “She grew up totally unengaged with Judaism, didn’t identify as Jewish in any significant way and wasn’t active or interested in Hillel. But the new visibility on campus had encouraged her to come out to see what this is about, and she has jumped in head first. Hillel awoke the Jewish soul within her, she has discovered this whole part of herself that may change her life from here on out.” Rabbi Daniel went on to comment that the student expressed how she never felt like she had home at Bradley, but after coming to Hillel, she instantly felt like she had a home there.
At the other end of the spectrum, Hillel has become a dependable outlet for Jewish students who come from strong Jewish backgrounds and are looking for the next step in their commitment to being part of a Jewish community. “When you are young and living at home, you go to temple with your family, go to Jewish camps, and participate in youth groups. Then you go to college and it’s your decision how Jewish or not Jewish you want to be,” explained Rebecca Turoff, a senior from Buffalo Grove. “Without Hillel, a lot of students would lose touch or not know what to do next with their Jewish selves, so Hillel is extremely important on any campus.” Bradley Hillel offers its students a wide variety of ways to explore their Jewish selves and build a Jewish community, with” Judaism 101” programs, Sunday bagel brunches, Israeli movie nights and even IDF soldiers coming to speak on campus. According to Zach Dalin, President of Bradley Hillel, Hillel is where Jewish students go to get their Jewish ‘fix’. “I knew getting involved in Hillel would give me a way to stay connected to my Jewish roots, and utilize my leadership skills to help be part of and grow a Jewish community.”
Zach could not speak more highly of the support Bradley gets from the faculty, administration and, in particular, from the local Jewish community, The Hillels of Illinois, and from the Jewish community in Chicago. Bradley Hillel has a corporate board made up of community members dedicated to Jewish campus life. “Peoria is a community where the kids go off to college and they don’t come back to Peoria, so the Jewish population and institutions are shrinking,” Rabbi Daniel said. “With that, something is really powerful about Hillel and having the future of our Jewish people right here and being able to help and support them.”
The Hillel house is the first new Jewish building to be built in Peoria in half a century. With it, comes the hope for a community, the potential to make a difference for students highly engaged in Jewish life and those who are just walking into the door for the first time, and the proof that Hillel is housing—and nurturing—the future of our community.
Lisette Zaid is Program Director for the Lewis Summer Intern Program and Development Associate for The Hillels of Illinois.
The Hillels of Illinois is a partner in serving our community and is supported by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. For more information go to TheHillelsofIlliois.org or call (312) 444-2868.