New home for Stanford Hillel in the works

Arnold Eisen will never forget the time esteemed author Chaim Potok came to Stanford. The Daniel E. Koshland professor of Jewish culture and religion escorted Potok to a Shabbat morning service, held in a dorm lounge for lack of a better place. The service was constantly interrupted by a choir practicing next door.

But that was better than Hillel’s regular quarters — 700 square feet, in a basement.

Eisen is not the only one to say that the facility at Stanford, or lack of one, causes some Jewishly involved students to go to college elsewhere.

“I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes,” he said.

“The basement is more than a metaphor,” said Adina Danzig, the newly appointed executive director of Stanford Hillel. It is “how students perceive Jewish life in general on campus, and whether there’s support for it or not.”

That’s about to change. Next year’s class of incoming freshmen will have a new Hillel center. Construction has begun to transfer a historic faculty home into a 3,700-square-foot facility.

With eight full-time staffers and 18 Jewish student groups operating out of the current facility, Hillel is severely limited in what it can provide. “There is nowhere for us to gather for meetings, services or just socializing,” said Carla Fenves, student president of Hillel. “More and more students are becoming active every year and there’s no room for them.”

Both Fenves and Danzig noted that having a new center will also give Jewish students a place to casually hang out, without a formal program.

And Eisen pointed out that while traditionally, Jewish student groups have held events with other campus groups, Hillel has never been in the position to invite these groups to its own facility. “You can’t host your friends at home if you don’t have a home to host them in,” he said.

The lead gift of $2.5 million is from the Harold and Libby Ziff Foundation, and the center will bear their names. Lela Sarnat, the daughter of Libby and the late Harold Ziff of Los Angeles, completed her doctorate at Stanford and lives in Portola Valley.

“When I was a student, Jewish life simply wasn’t thriving at Stanford,” said Sarnat. “The creation of a physical home for Jewish campus life is critical to building the Jewish community on campus and beyond, and to creating a positive identity among Jewish students.”

In 2000, the university agreed to let Hillel lease a house on campus for 51 years, and that set things in motion. The proper permits were obtained, while fund-raising began. For the first phase, $1.3 million still needs to be raised to complete the $5.9 million dollar renovation.

When phase one is completed, the center will have modest program and meeting spaces, a library and staff office space.

Phase two is more ambitious, with a kosher kitchen and dining room, more program space, a student lounge/cafe and prayer space. An additional $7 million for construction and $4 million for an endowment fund needs to be raised.

With the new center, said Danzig, “We anticipate that this will attract more Jewish students to Stanford. And a significant number of Stanford grads stay in the Bay area, so strategically, over the long term, having a center like this will impact the campus community and the larger community as more people come here and then stay here.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."