Plans for new Stanford Hillel home will see light of day

What was once the living quarters for a friend of the Leland Stanford family will be converted into a permanent residence for Hillel at Stanford University.

The new Taube Center for Jewish Life at Stanford will be located in a 95-year-old building formerly known as the Dunn-Bacon House. Once the building gets a facelift starting in February, it will also be a testament to one man's personal odyssey.

"Never in a billion years will I forget how scared I was when SS guards checked my passport on the way from Poland to Paris," said Tad Taube, a Peninsula businessman and philanthropist whose gift has paved the way for the new Hillel home. "I was 7 years old, and my passport had the word 'Jew' written on it."

Though Taube eventually made it to America, where he joined his mother and father, many of his other family members were not so lucky.

"I lost a great part of my family in the Holocaust," he said, "so I don't need anyone to draw a picture for me of what it's like to be a Jew."

Taube, who serves as board president of the Koret Foundation, donated $1,050,000 to purchase the new center's lease from Stanford University. He is also heavily involved with efforts to raise another $10 million to construct an adjacent building complete with a kosher kitchen and synagogue. It will replace a much smaller basement facility.

"When people talk about the matrix of Jewish life, there's a certain hole that represents a point of discontinuity," he said, "and that is the period of time between the ages of 21 to 40, where many people drop off the face of the earth in terms of Jewish identity."

That was the case in Taube's own life, where a variety of factors caused him to disconnect with the Jewish community. He had to fill in some big blanks in his own Jewish education.

Taube, who graduated from Stanford in 1957 after a three-year stint in the Air Force, said the stress of balancing marriage, children and rough economic times left him with precious little time to strengthen his Jewish identity.

"In my mid-20s and 30s there wasn't really a lot of time to reflect on my life as a Jew," he said. "I was too busy busting my hump trying to make ends meet."

The Taube Center for Jewish Life is the philanthropist's attempt to bridge that gap in Jewish continuity.

The center will constitute the "central address for Jewish life on campus," according to Steven Zipperstein, the Koshland professor in Jewish culture and history at Stanford.

Zipperstein, who is also the Taube director of programs in Jewish studies, said the building highlights the growth of Stanford's Jewish campus life over the past decade. Poetry readings, lectures and film festivals will also be held there.

"The Taube Center will serve as a concrete manifestation of the splendid things that are happening at Stanford," he added.

And that could even include knishes.

"The heart of any convivial activity is food," said Zipperstein. "All the best insights of the Chassidim were over food, and having a kosher kitchen, where people can stop, slow down and kibitz is really a great thing for the community."

Now that plans for a new Stanford Jewish hub have seen the light of day, it will be possible for Hillel to come out of the basement.

"If you went to Stanford University, and asked anyone how to find the campus Hillel, 98 percent of those people — including Jews — wouldn't be able to tell you," said Robert Rosenzweig, president of Stanford Hillel's board of directors..

That's because the campus Hillel has been an underground scene — literally.

"We're located in the basement of a dilapidated old building, with six staff members trying to squeeze into 450 square feet of space," said Debra Feldstein, Stanford Hillel executive director. "It's extremely difficult to create the type of programming we want under those circumstances."

Elliot Brandt, a 1990 Stanford graduate and active Hillel member during that time, agreed.

"Being in the basement presented certain marketing problems, at the very least," said Brandt, the regional director of AIPAC's Pacific Northwest division. "My hope is that the community really comes out and strongly supports the new facility because Stanford is where the roots of my Jewish identity began to grow."

The eventual goal, according to Taube, is to have the center serve as a template for other organizations seeking to nourish Jewish identity in young adults.

"This is not just a 'one pill to fix all the ills' type of solution," he said. "But the goal is to really try to find some way to preserve a culture that was almost extinguished in my lifetime."