a bright space with "go bears" written in hebrew on one wall; students relax on couches and at tables
An artist's rendering of the second floor of the remodeled Berkeley Hillel building

New details on Berkeley Hillel’s big $9m remodel

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When Berkeley Hillel was remodeled in the late 1980s, it was designed to evoke flowing images of a tallit. The concept may have been artistic, but it made life difficult for staff and students as demands grew on the facility that houses so much of Jewish life at Cal.

So when a building renovation task force started looking into upgrades, such as a new roof and carpeting, members decided instead on a complete $9 million remodel that will allow Hillel to better meet its expanding needs.

“When the building was designed, the demands and programmatic needs were a small fraction of what they are today,” task force chair Kevin Perkins said. “It was meant to mirror a waving tallit; they tried to avoid right angles, and the result of that was you had very inefficient space utilization.”

That will change. Groundbreaking is planned for July and construction is expected to last until the fall of 2018. The building will remain open throughout the renovation.

a big, warm, inviting building seen from the street at dusk
Artist’s rendering of the remodeled UC Berkeley Hillel building

Project manager Marjorie Smith of Emeryville-based Siegel & Strain Architects said it was important to keep the facility open during renovation so the freshman class entering this August will become familiar with the Hillel building. Lehrhaus Judaica, a tenant at Berkeley Hillel, will move out during the remodel.

The renovation was needed to improve accessibility, safety, energy efficiency and flexibility at the 16,000-square-foot building located on Bancroft Avenue.

“It was really not meeting the needs of the students. They didn’t have enough spaces where a bunch of groups could meet at the same time,” Smith said, adding that the new configuration will ensure that “a space can be used as a chapel, it can be used as a meeting room, it can be used as a place to do yoga.”

Perkins said the project grew as planners sought to create a facility that could meet all the needs of Hillel, where the university’s Jewish students eat meals, attend High Holy Day services and participate in social and educational activities,

“We started off with something like a $4 million budget,” he said. “Then we decided it would make more sense to sit down and redesign the building for the next 30 or maybe 40 years. It can be a hub for Jewish life on campus for generations.”

a long, open space of wood, stone and yellow wall. students stand or sit chatting
An artist’s rendering of the first floor of the remodeled Berkeley Hillel building

Hillel was established at UC Berkeley in 1927, becoming the fifth Hillel facility in the nation. It now hosts more than 1,900 students each year and provides thousands of weekly BBQ meals and Shabbat dinners.

“Thirty years ago, Jacques and Esther Reutlinger took the initial risk by investing in the remodel of the Hillel building in hopes of attracting young Jewish adults to Hillel and Jewish life,” Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel, said by email from Israel while leading 40 students on a Birthright Israel trip. “Today, Hillel has been successful beyond what they could have imagined. The space is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the Jewish students.”

Hillel is selling naming rights to many of the rooms and outdoor spaces at the new facility. The largest contribution so far has been $3 million from Gerson and Barbara Bakar, who will have their names on the auditorium and dining room.

The Bakar name is a familiar one at UC Berkeley. In the fall of 2007, the couple gave $25 million to the Haas School of Business to add five faculty members. To honor them, the Haas School named its faculty wing the Barbara and Gerson Bakar Faculty Building.

Gerson Bakar, who received a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley’s business school in 1948, is a San Francisco real estate developer.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.