On a dreary Friday evening, new roommates Juliana Teibel and Erica Hochman were looking for some place to go. Hailing from Buffalo, N.Y., and Mountainside, N.J., respectively, the pair were new to Philadelphia and Temple University. The 18-year-olds admitted that they hadn't met many people yet — besides each other — and with countless student groups vying for their attention, the duo could have gone anywhere.
In the end, they pulled on raincoats and cut across campus to attend Shabbat activities at Temple's Hillel. If they didn't know many people beforehand, they certainly had the chance to meet a few: About 90 people had turned out for the event, most of them new students. There was even a VIP of sorts at the Shabbat dinner — Dean of Students Betsy Leebron Tutelman dropped by.
"A place like this is a good anchor for yourself," said Teibel, although Hochman added that they came more for the community than for the services.
A Veritable Renaissance?
Actually, Teibel and Hochman may have wandered into Hillel at one of the most fortuitous moments in the history of Jewish life at the 125-year-old university.
For decades, many considered Temple to be Philadelphia's "Jewish school," as it not only drew from the region's hearty Jewish population, but because it was less expensive compared to other schools in the area.
For many years, though, Jewish life on campus meant little more than a preponderance of Jewish students; but now, as the current academic year gets under way, all signs point to a renaissance of Jewish activity at the university.
What may be most significant about the current spate of Jewish renewal on campus is that it's all come to fruition at about the same moment.
Chief among those developments is the long-awaited completion of the new Edward H. Rosen Hillel Center at Temple University, a $6 million construction project to replace the existing Hillel.
But the North Philadelphia campus has a number of other outlets for Jewish life, including its burgeoning Chabad house, now entering its third year.
Led by Rabbi Baruch Kantor, Temple's Chabad is run out of the home he shares with his wife and children.
Because of that situation, he noted that the whole thing "is very haimish style, with a family warmth and a family structure."
The Shabbat dinners, he said, are literally homemade, and last semester, they usually drew an average of 50 people.
But two of the biggest boons to the university's Jewish renaissance lie in the classroom.
New faces are at the helm of the school's Jewish Studies program and the Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History.
Jewish Studies — a division of the religion department — is led by director Mark Leutcher. It's become notable in recent years for the emphasis placed on its courses in secular Judaism, some of the department's most popular offerings. A mini-minor with a certificate in secular Judaism is available to students in any department, and Temple claims to be the only college in the country offering that credit. Part of the funding for the secular offerings comes from the Posen Foundation.
Leutcher stressed that such courses have not been conceived of as "an affront or a challenge to Jewish tradition" — there's no Judaism without Jews, he said — but that studying Jewish culture from a nonreligious point of view can help illuminate the religious side of Jewish life.
At the same time, he said that he also hoped to bolster "the core of the program, so that we have more of the classical Judaic-studies opportunities for students," such as courses in rabbinics and biblical history, that generally form the backbone of such a program.
The program is also known for its strong emphasis on Jewish feminism, as well as for its Center for Afro-Jewish Studies.
"It's not Hebrew school; it's not your standard Jewish-studies program," said longtime professor Laura Levitt, adding that the program had "always been somewhat eccentric" and "a little more edgy," which has helped attract students to its offerings.
Elsewhere, the Feinstein Center also has new management in the guise of Lila Berman. Arriving at Temple after four years on the faculty of Penn State University, Berman plans to use the think-tank-style center as a place not just for research, but as a venue for films, concerts and cultural events for students. Still, she said that its primary mission will be to continue its work as a center to delve into "new questions and new approaches to American Jewish history and American Jewish experiences."
While Berman was excited about all the scholarly possibilities, she also hoped to use the venue to affect students on a much more personal level.
"One of the best things about college is that you can do this identity work, but under sort of the removed guise of academic exploration. So you can be thinking about yourself and talking about yourself, but going at it from a more rigorous scientific or intellectual method."
Students and scholars doing such research won't have to go far for some of their primary source materials.
The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center recently completed its merger with the Urban Archives in Temple University Libraries, a move in the works for nearly a year.
PJAC's collection — which adds an additional 25 percent to Temple's holdings, amounting to a total of 25 million pieces — contains materials dating to the 19th century, including photographs, immigration records, historical documents and more.
All that material will be overseen by archivist Sara Sherman, who served in that position at its old facility on North Eighth Street.
New Home Away From Home?
Before much of the real academic work begins, there are more basic things for students to attend to, including the simple act of getting acquainted with university life.
Hillel functions will continue to be held at the current space until the Rosen Center opens — with any luck, by mid-autumn, said Temple Hillel director Phil Nordlinger. The official opening ceremony is slated for Nov. 11.
Around the corner from the current facility, the Rosen Center will serve as a hub for Jewish students. The ultra-modern, three-story space will have semi-regular Shabbat dinners and services; host a number of minyans for different denominations; be fully integrated into the university's IT system; and even house a kosher cafeteria accessible to all students as part of the on-campus dining plan.
The new building boasts state-of-the-art security, and is monitored by an independent company connected to campus police.
One of the more major shifts this year, said Nordlinger, is the focus on putting the power in the hands of students to create and manage events, rather than running things from the top down.
"Rather than seeing huge programs coming out of Hillel, what you might see are smaller programs happening in dorms or dining halls or libraries," he explained. That sort of grass-roots event-planning is a way of saying that "Hillel is not the only way to do Judaism, and you, as a student, have a part in creating your own Jewish experience," for which Hillel, in turn, can provide tools and support.
After the first day of classes on Aug. 31, Temple Hillel held a welcome-back barbecue. More than 150 gathered inside, in the backyard and on the sidewalk in front of the building, chowing down on grilled burgers and hot dogs — all kosher, of course.
Among other things, it provided an opportunity for students to interact with Hillel in a nonreligious manner. Sophomore Max Lieberman, 20, lounged on the couch watching his friends play Wii tennis, while in the backyard freshmen Jordana Lipsitz and Eric Belkoff chatted casually.
Belkoff observed that there weren't many Jews in his native Las Vegas, so Hillel offers an opportunity to feel a little less of an outsider.
Others like Michael Ashery, a freshman, hoped to keep their Judaism alive and prevent it from "going down the drain" during their undergrad years.
On his way out, Ashery said goodbye to a few of the people he'd met, but halfway through the door, he stopped and turned around.
"By the way," he asked Hillel program director Sarah Beth Feinberg, "when is the next event?"