"For historical reasons Jews did not build impressive monuments in stone and wood, but concentrated their creative genius on constructing inspiring structures in time."
—Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold, former Director of Harvard Hillel, delivering a sermon in Memorial Church on "Jews, Judaism and the University," Sept. 1975
I. Meeting: Massachusetts Ave., 1944
It begins with a vacant room in a movie theater. Solely five characters.
Hillel at Harvard is initially small, and somewhat divisive; many Jewish students, satisfied with the largely tolerant status quo beyond the final clubs, are wary of an organization that separates them from the rest of their peers.
This separation—not only from the student body, but also from the university itself—differentiates Harvard Hillel from other chapters on American college campuses; Harvard does not allow religious organizations to occupy its buildings.
The issue of a growing Jewish student population, which had dominated campus debates in the era of presidents Eliot and Lowell, has somewhat subsided. Abroad, the war in Europe rages on.
Amid such clashing tides of opinion on religious coexistence, it is a unique time for students at Harvard who identify as Jews. The administration still struggles to define the rightful place of religion on campus.
II. Gathering: 1 & 5 Bryant Street, 1944
Hillel at Harvard is devised as a gathering place, where Jewish students can uphold and reaffirm their heritage. Hillel establishes its first home on Bryant Street, a short walk from the Divinity School. The space is small, and, as the chapter grows and attracts visitors from neighboring college campuses, quickly becomes restrictive.
Undaunted, Hillel continues to expand its programming. As early as 1951, the organization advertises exhibitions of rare Jewish artifacts. The building also hosts meals, religious ceremonies and prayer groups, in addition to sponsoring an ambitious variety of social activities.
Yet Hillel, as both an organization and a place, remains distinct from the university.
III. Dedication: Mt. Auburn Street, off of Holyoke, 1979
"It’s been a long time coming," says Ruben G. Perlmutter ’79, Chairman of Hillel's Coordinating Council, in a 1978 interview with The Crimson. Until now, the center at Bryant Street has been paying the price for its popularity; in a 1977 interview with The Crimson, Henry Morgenthau III, then-president of the Friends of Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, says the building is "decrepit and overcrowded."
Hillel's ability to secure a new location on Harvard property is a testament to how much the organization has grown during the last decades. From the initial five characters have come crowds of members. A quarter of the student population now identifies as Jewish.
On the occasion of Hillel's move to 74 Mt. Auburn, Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovky remarks on the irony that the group is moving into the original home of the Iroquois Club, one of the rare final clubs that had accepted Jewish students before World War I. Hillel is inheriting, along with a larger and more central location, a building with a storied past. Most recently, it has been home to Sanctuary, which served the homeless community of Cambridge.
The dedication of Hillel's latest facility is a high-profile affair. In true Harvard fashion, the event is marked by speeches by several prominent academic, religious, and administrative personalities. Hundreds then march from the Phillips Brooks House to the newest location, following two marchers carrying Torah scrolls. The primary donors of the Riesman Center—as it will be called—bless the newly renovated rooms.
The sheer size of the ceremony points to larger changes in the structure and focus of Hillel at Harvard; with its new headquarters on Mt. Auburn, and the addition of an open dining hall and café, Hillel seeks to expand its presence on campus beyond its traditional members.
IV. Construction: Mt. Auburn and Plympton Streets, 1993
Moshe Safdie is an Israeli-born architect, recognized around the world for his modern, highly innovative uses of space and light. In 1993, he is commissioned to design a new building for Harvard Hillel, the first to be conceived and built specifically to serve the needs of the organization. After decades of adapting to different locations and sharing spaces, Hillel will finally have a home that is fully adapted to its personal mission.
Strange, how a glass house can signify permanence.
V. Home: Mt. Auburn and Plympton Streets, 2012
Hillel's current facilities, on the corner of Mt. Auburn and Plympton, are very different from the monuments of stone and wood described by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold. With its large panes of glass, circular courtyard and unique vaulted construction, the center seems to reflect what he termed the "creative genius" of Jewish "structures in time"—that is, the diversity in rituals and practices of Judaism.
Eighteen years since the move into Safdie's light-filled Rosovsky Hall, Hillel has emerged as an organization with a renewed sense of purpose. After decades dedicated to establishing a home for the Jewish community, the organization now appears more focused on its larger mission to serve as "a catalyst for Jewish life" on campus.
However, discussion always returns to the issue of space. Today, Hillel is defined by its location, and the services—kosher dining hall, meeting rooms, courtyard—it offers to the Harvard population at large. Originally an association of students, Harvard Hillel has come to focus on its identity as a place—spiritual, communal, but nonetheless a location—at Harvard.
"The Harvard Hillel is unique because of its special place on campus," says Sara Kantor ’14, President of the Steering Committee of Hillel and a Crimson arts editor. "It serves as a religious center, but not to one specific variety of Judaism."
Now more than ever, Hillel as a location appears intent on opening itself to the greater Harvard community. Current undergraduate leaders at Hillel repeatedly allude to plurality, outreach, and openness. Arun A. Viswanath ’13, former President of the Steering Committee, says, "Everyone involved is working toward making Hillel a place that has something for everyone—especially if you're Jewish, but not necessarily."