New Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University Opens

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It may have taken longer than it did for God to create the world, but as they gazed at the new Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University, designer Stanley Saitowitz, Drexel President John Fry, Rabbi Isabel de Koninck and even 99-year-old Perelman himself collectively must’ve had the same thought.

They saw that it was good.

“It’s amazing,” said the South African-born Saitowitz. “This starts as a thought inside your brain and then you sketch, draw and develop it.

“It’s a process that goes on a long time. To see it in three-dimensional reality walking inside it makes it worth doing the work.”

It also rewards the interminable wait Jewish students at Drexel have had trying to find a place to call home.

“We’ve had about 900 Jewish students on campus, working from an office less than 400 square feet, and students couldn’t find us,” said de Koninck, who’s been on campus seven years. “Our students really struggle finding spaces because this is an urban campus and space is at a premium.

“They struggled to know where we’d have Shabbat week to week. We probably used a half-dozen places across campus. So on a practical level, it fills a resource need. On a much broader level, this facility demonstrates Drexel’s commitment to being a welcoming and safe environment for Jewish students and allows them to have both an anchor for Jewish life and a platform which they never had before to build community.”

In his introductory remarks prior to the Oct. 26 ribbon cutting, Fry referenced Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Selma, Ala., in 1965.

“He said, ‘Our goal should be to live a life in radical amazement,’” said Fry.

“If you think of the outpouring of generosity … the profound commitment to community and the thoughtful, spiritual craftsmanship that brought to fruition this center for Jewish life, it’s certainly cause for radical amazement.”

This marks Perelman’s second contribution to campus, the first being a $5 million plaza along 32nd Street that was dedicated in 2014.

“John Fry got him involved with Drexel, and it’s a great partnership,” said Perelman’s son Ron, the CEO of MacAndrews & Forbes. “They’ve done an amazing job in improving the vibes of the students here secularly and religiously.

“This is beautiful. My dad always thought there should be facilities for religious education and religious tradition. It’s always been a very important part of his ideals and vision and giving.

“He loves it. The fact he’s a part of this and can help with Jewish education for college students just thrills him.”

Perelman wasn’t the only one in on this, though.

The building was financed through $10 million of donations from 40 donors, making it the first building on campus constructed entirely through philanthropic endeavors, Fry said.

Most of them were on hand to celebrate on this day, then tour the facility, which is most distinctive because of its third-floor prayer space. With three separate rooms, there’s a place for every denomination, an aspect Drexel considers vital in its effort to be welcoming and inclusive to all Jewish students.

“It’s thrilling to finally have the tools to do what we’ve already done great, and this will make it greater,” said Hillel Board President Max Kahn, a graphic design student. “We’ve always made the most out of whatever cards we were dealt from the deck, and the cards we were dealt varied tremendously.

“Now we’re at a point where we’ll be able to do our best work and have the greatest potential to deal with our community because we have the space.”

So what’s the bottom line?

“In some ways, we’ll only know in the future how much this means,” said de Koninck, who was able to conduct High Holiday services at the center prior to its official opening. “But already our students walk on this campus with a different sense of pride.

“The community understands Drexel is a place that values its Jewish students and wants it to be a place that’s warm, safe and vibrant. We have that now.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729

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