At 75, Berkeley Hillel is home to 3 generations

Were it not for Berkeley Hillel, Jesse Gabriel just might have committed a downright scholastic shocker by — gulp — enrolling at Stanford.

That’s quite an admission from last year’s U.C. Berkeley student body president, a 22-year-old Southern Californian who comes from an impressive line of Cal alums.

In Gabriel’s family, “there had always been a big emphasis on Berkeley. My grandpa told me he wouldn’t speak to me if I chose Stanford, and I got the impression he was only half kidding,” said Gabriel, now a senior.

That potential family feud was avoided, however, after Gabriel visited the Jewish student center on Bancroft Way across from the Cal campus while weighing college admission offers in his last year of high school.

Gabriel — who was among the celebrants at Hillel’s recent 75th anniversary — can’t recall exactly what it was about the organization that impressed him. But there was “just a bunch of stuff going on at Hillel,” he said. “Going to a campus that had a strong and vibrant Jewish life was very important to me.”

And whatever he saw that day was vibrant and strong enough to tip the scales in favor of Cal over rival Stanford.

By making that choice, Gabriel not only ensured an unbroken family line at the university — it includes his other grandfather, aunts and cousins — but also placed another generational link in his mishpoche’s already substantial ties to Hillel.

Gabriel’s maternal grandfather, Fred Katzburg, joined Hillel when he became a Cal student back in 1941, and both his parents, Stuart Gabriel and Judith Katzburg, were active there as students in the 1970s.

Berkeley Hillel was already in its bar mitzvah year when Fred Katzburg first ventured into the Jewish center as a freshman.

“It was just natural for me,” said Katzburg, an 80-year-old Oakland native whose family was active at Temple Beth Abraham. Now living in Walnut Creek, he served as president at both Hillel and Reform Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

Hillel, which recently marked its 75th anniversary with a Shabbat celebration attended by more than 200 supporters, was organized in 1928 as part of a growing B’nai B’rith movement to reach Jewish students on college campuses.

These days, Berkeley Hillel reaches some 800 to 1,000 students each semester with twice-weekly Israeli folk dancing and

regular Shabbat services. It also sponsors more than two dozen groups ranging from social and political action clubs to an intramural basketball team called, fittingly enough, Gefilte Swish. Last year, an invitation by Hillel students led to an on-campus speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

“Over the course of years, it sort of changed with the times in order to be responsive to and reflective of the overall Jewish student community,” said Adam Weisberg, Hillel’s executive director.

For the three generations of Gabriel’s family who attended Cal during periods of political activism, Hillel has been just that.

A retired chemist, Fred Katzburg remembers Hillel was at first a place to play Ping-Pong and attend dances in the early 1940s. After a three-year stint in the Army, Katzburg returned to campus in late 1946 and a far different Jewish center. Hillel was evolving into a hub of celebration and information about the newly created state of Israel.

Katzburg remembers heading over to Hillel after the United Nations vote to establish Israel. “There was a great bit of joy when the vote was announced,” he said.

He joined a team of Hillel students who traveled to B’nai B’rith lodges throughout Northern California to deliver talks and musical programs about the new state.

In the early 1970s, his daughter, Judith, followed her father to Cal and up the steps of Hillel.

Judith Katzburg met her future husband, fellow Cal student Stuart Gabriel, on their junior year abroad in Israel. The trip coincided with the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.

“It was quite an experience for a student to be there during a time of war. We brought that whole consciousness back with us,” said Stuart Gabriel, now a professor of business at the University of Southern California.

Stuart Gabriel and Judith Katzburg, a health services researcher at UCLA, became involved in Hillel’s Israel-action activities and Soviet Jewry support.

Hillel, said Stuart Gabriel, was “a focal point of Jewish student activity at Berkeley. For me, it was a meeting place, kind of a crossroads for all these different interests and activities.”

As newlyweds, the couple traveled to the Soviet Union in 1979 to meet and support refuseniks and other Soviet Jews. They later organized a large demonstration outside the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco.

While they encouraged son Jesse to make his own college choices, they were pleased with his selection and the knowledge that he, too, had “found a home at Hillel,” said Judith Katzburg.

For Jesse Gabriel, the Jewish center has been both a social and political haven through some periods of fierce anti-Israel unrest at Berkeley.

“There were some very tough days,” he said, citing his sophomore year as the most difficult. In the spring of 2002, vandals hurled a brick through the glass front door at Hillel and scrawled anti-Semitic graffiti on a garbage can. Then in April 2002, pro-Palestinian students staged a sit-in at the university’s Wheeler Hall that coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Through it all, Gabriel said, “Berkeley Hillel has been a wonderful place for Jewish students to go and feel safe and feel supported.”

He credits fellow Jewish students, including Hillel members, with supporting his election as president of the Associated Students of the University of California in May 2002. Gabriel won by a bare 80-vote margin out of 8,000 votes cast in what he jokingly calls “my clear mandate from the people.”

Now in his final year as a political science major and no longer in office, Gabriel goes to Hillel for Shabbat dinners at least three times a month. “It’s wonderful,” he said of the services and meals that regularly attract more than 200 students.

Hoping to ensure that the family connection remains intact, Gabriel encouraged his cousin, a freshman, to attend the annual Hillel retreat and may do likewise if his 18-year-old brother, Oren, decides to go to Cal.

“I’m the third generation,” Gabriel said. “Part of our Cal experience has been to work for Jewish causes on campus. It’s something I feel very much is my responsibility.”