When Brown Hillel, which has long been a place for Friday night services and Passover seders, dedicated its spacious new campus center on February 26, the occasion symbolized a new phase in the organization’s development. Hillel leaders hope the building will allow Brown’s Jewish community to take a more central role in campus culture. “It’s not just the synagogue on campus,” says Hillel director Rabbi Richard Kirschen. He aspires to have Hillel become an institution similar to New York City’s 92nd Street Y, which has long been an important cultural institution there. “It’s kind of changing what it means to be part of the Jewish community at Brown.”
The new $12 million, 25,000-square-foot compound is the culmination of years of planning, an acrimonious lawsuit with neighbors, and an ambitious capital campaign led by Brown trustee Marty Granoff. To create the center, architects gutted Hillel’s old building, which had become structurally unsound, and linked it to two adjacent eighteenth-century houses the organization had purchased on Angell Street. The compound is five times larger than its predecessor, with room for a self-service café, as well as a gallery, library, music room, computer center, Kosher kitchen, and large, vaulted chapel. The buildings frame a central garden and a patio. The center has so much space, Hillel is still deciding what to do with all of it. “Anyone at Brown can call us up and reserve a room,” Kirschen says. “It’s an open-neighbor policy.”
In an effort to expand Hillel’s appeal, Kirschen has pushed the group to sponsor Jewish-themed events that appeal to a wider community, including concerts, comedy acts, and speakers. Such activities were vital to maintaining the organization’s profile during construction, when Hillel was exiled to the chaplains’ office in Faunce House. “Three hundred people for Shabbat dinner is great,” Kirschen says, “but 500 people to see [former Middle East negotiator] Dennis Ross or [Harvard professor] Alan Dershowitz, who we’re bringing soon, that shows how broad our audience can be.”
In early February, Hillel’s professional staff was still moving into its honeycomb of offices. Boxes were stacked on the floor, and random papers and clothes filled a conference room. Taking time from unpacking, Kirschen led a reporter through the facility. Near the end of the tour, Kirschen noticed a student rubbing the floor of the large multipurpose hall with his finger.
“I’m from the break-dancing club,” the student, dressed in a red track suit, told Kirschen. “This is pretty nice right here. And it’s clean.”
There are some other rooms with smooth floors, Kirschen informed the student. “Go check the place out.”