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2005 blog



A New Hillel Center:
Why not in our Backyard?

                                                            San Diego Jewish Times, Aug. 12, 2005

By Donald H. Harrison

There are those who believe that the building of a new Hillel Center across the street from UCSD is simply a La Jolla issue, which turns on worries about parking.  But they are wrong.  Whether a Hillel center is built is more important than that.  It is a Jewish community issue, and as a community we need to give Hillel our support.  If we don’t, Nimbyism (Not-in-our-backyard-ism) will play havoc with our Jewish future.

To understand what is at stake, you might want to visit the thriving 10,000-square-foot Hillel Center recently built close to the UC-Santa Barbara campus.  According to Rabbi Steven Cohen, the former Hillel director who now is the pulpit rabbi at Congregation B’nai B’rith of Santa Barbara, the center is “a place that the students are proud of—they come and they hang out there.  Because the building is the place where the communal gatherings occur, it puts people into relationship with each other. You meet your future spouse there—it happens all the time—or the people who end up being your best friends.”

  Additionally, says Cohen, who in 19 years as Hillel director transformed the organization from one attracting a cadre of 15 students to one that serves hundreds, “the fact that there has been a successful Hillel at UC Santa Barbara had a major impact on the life of the Jewish community in general.  The dynamic, energetic, magnetic Jewish students who come together at Hillel go on to become youth group leaders in Santa Barbara for high school kids, teachers in the synagogue, and participants in a new foundation funded by a man in town who pays students to go out in the community and do all kinds of good things.”

Known formally as the Milton Roisman Jewish Student Center after a donor who used to pray on Saturday mornings at Hillel, the center includes a large and beautiful Jeffrey Friedman Sanctuary, memorializing the late husband of another community donor, and a library, conference room, lounge, social hall, computer room, garden patio area and some office space.  Josh Kashinsky, who has been serving as acting director pending the arrival from Sydney, Australia, of Rabbi Allison Conyer, said the building is open from 9 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. through the end of evening Shabbat services on Friday; closed Saturday, and open from 5 p.m. to midnight on Sunday.  During finals, he added, it remains open until 2 a.m.

David Levy, Hillel’s regional director in Los Angeles, says a Hillel Center such as that at UC-Santa Babara is a good community investment because “over 85 percent of the Jewish population between the ages of 20 and 29 are on a college campus at some point.  In terms of demography, it is probably the best time to reach a population—at a time when they are exploring and discovering.  This is one of the best investments we can make, because we know where they are.”

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein, executive director of Hillel of San Diego, said the center built by Rabbi Cohen at UC-Santa Barbara was closely studied when plans were made for the 12,000-square foot UCSD Hillel proposed for construction on a triangular piece of land bounded by La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla Scenic North and La Jolla Scenic Way.

 “When we were first thinking about design features we went up to Santa Barbara and toured their facility,” Goldstein said.  “We got a lot of great ideas.  Their sanctuary is absolutely gorgeous, warm, friendly and welcoming.  At that point Santa Barbara did just one service for Shabbat, and we did three.”  So the San Diego facility will include “three rooms that open up into one,” enabling simultaneous services in the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox traditions with the students coming together as one following the services.

“In Santa Barbara,” Goldstein added, “they have a lot of little nooks where two or three people can sit and have a private conversation.  There is a coffee machine, with a few chairs nearby.  We tried to put a few of those in our design also.  We wanted both open spaces for meetings and places to feel intimate.”

With its 1,700-square-foot house near the San Diego State University campus—where Jackie Tolley serves as director—Hillel of San Diego has experienced the difference it makes when “students have a sense of place, a home on campus,” Goldstein said. 

A building provides “all kinds of ways students can interact with each other; it makes Jewish learning more acceptable…it exposes students to kashrut and a sense of home….It also allows us to offer services like a computer lab…. And, if someone needs something, they know where to go—whether it is that their grandma died, or they broke up with a significant other, or have a question about a class in Judaic studies.  If they want to talk about it, they can.”

Hillel of UCSD operates out of a 1,500-square-foot house at 8976 Clifford Avenue, but because of zoning regulations, that is simply for staff, not for programming.  Today, all programming is done on the UCSD campus.

With a new building, said Goldstein, “everything is going to be different.  Currrently there is no Jewish space on campus—no place that students can go to have a safe space. There is a cross-cultural center, a women’s center, a LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) center, but no Jewish center.”

If the San Diego City Council permits the sale of the land to Hillel, programming opportunities will increase because today “space is highly limited on campus, so if we want a program, we have to scramble to find a place for it to happen,” the rabbi said. “There is huge competition to use the Price Center (UCSD’s student center).  So if you want to do a series—say a lecture program on the Middle East—you couldn’t do that.  You can only have four room reservations at one time.”

The zoning for a Hillel House was earlier approved by the San Diego City Council.  But neighbors who are afraid students will take up all the on-street parking have rallied against the project, recently persuading the City Planning Commission to recommend unanimously to the City Council that the city not sell the land in question to Hillel.

Goldstein said she believes the nearby residents have greatly exaggerated the possible parking problems.  She said that most students at UCSD either live on campus or park their cars on campus and would walk to the Hillel facility. Even so, she said, Hillel has offered to provide 40 parking spaces underground.  To further fit into the neighborhood, Hillel plans to landscape two-thirds of the property.  Nevertheless, some neighbors aren’t satisfied, saying if Hillel is permitted to locate across the street from the campus, it will pave the way for other institutions to do likewise.

The issue is scheduled to come before the San Diego City Council on September 27th, but in the interest of fairness it may be delayed until after the November special elections for a new mayor and two city council members.  Those elections were occasioned by the resignation of Mayor Dick Murphy and the more recent criminal convictions of Councilmembers Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza Jr. on charges of bribery and extortion in connection with the city’s “no touch” law at strip clubs.

With five affirmative votes necessary to approve any city ordinance, and with only six members remaining on the current City Council, that means that any two members of the City Council could effectively veto a project by voting against it.

Whenever the Hillel Center comes before the City Council, it is important for the Jewish community in the meantime to mobilize in its support.  If you know any of the remaining members of the City Council—Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, Tony Young, Brian Maienschein, Donna Frye and Jim Madaffer—please contact him or her and emphasize how important to the Jewish community this really is.

You may hear that some fellow Jews have been vociferous in their opposition to the project, putting their concerns as property owners ahead of the concerns our community has for continuity.  It’s important that the councilmembers understand that such opponents do not speak for the Jewish community, they speak only for themselves.

To keep up to date on when the City Council hearing will be held, please call Rabbi Goldstein at (858) 550 2210 and tell her you’re willing to testify at the City Council hearings, or to make phone calls, or to write letters, or to do whatever else is necessary to make certain that Jewish kids at UCSD now and in the future get a fair break.