Drexel University hopes to elevate a growing Jewish presence on campus with the construction of a new Center for Jewish Life.
In doing so, it would become the first Philadelphia-area campus to build a Jewish center conceived and built by the university rather than by the Jewish community.
The school unveiled plans for the project at a dinner April 18 attended by prospective donors that also featured a presentation from Dennis Ross, a former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East.
The proposed 13,000 square-foot building, at an estimated cost of $7 million, would include a kosher cafe open to the public and a kosher kitchen for students, a chapel, a dining hall, a student lounge and meeting space. It would be located on 34th Street near Lancaster Avenue.
The initiative for the new center came from the university’s president, John A. Fry, who arrived two years ago with a history of supporting Jewish life on college campuses. He was responding to a Jewish student body that has become more active in recent years — attending Hillel programming, Shabbat services and dinners, and traveling in greater numbers to Israel on Birthright trips.
At the recent dinner, both students and alumni said that Jewish student life gained momentum when Fry joined the university in 2010.
“He said that we need to grow the Jewish population at Drexel in order to achieve the diversity that we think is consistent with a major national university,” said Hugh Chairnoff, a Drexel alum and the chairman of the Drexel Hillel board of overseers.
Fry recalled that when he spoke with Jewish students upon his arrival, they told him that there was minimal programming offered, that they had no place to convene, and that there was no kosher kitchen, which made holding events difficult.
He borrowed from his experiences first as the executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Franklin and Marshall College, where he spent eight years as president and led efforts to build the Klehr Center for Jewish Life. In past decades, Franklin and Marshall had had a large Jewish student body, Fry said, but those numbers had dwindled by the time he arrived in 2002.
“I understood that really what it was about was a lack of investment in quality Jewish life — in Hillel, Judaic studies, in kosher dining — all the things that you want to provide to show Jewish students and their families that this is not only a wonderful undergraduate experience but also a wonderful experience being a Jewish student,” Fry said. He said the percentage of Jewish students at Franklin and Marshall more than doubled from when he started until now.
He said when he arrived at Drexel, he realized he faced the same challenge.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said the project is particularly significant because it would be the first Jewish student center in the Philadelphia area that was conceived by the university itself.
Both Steinhardt Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, which opened in 2003, and the Edward H. Rosen Hillel Center for Jewish Life at Temple University, which opened in 2009, were conceived and built by the Jewish community and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, with seed funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, according to Alpert.
At Drexel, Alpert said, the university has already invested the resources to develop the initial design and is seeking funding from Drexel alumni to raise the necessary funds.
“The university leadership, in supporting the Jewish community at Drexel,” Alpert said, “is farsighted, and it’s consistent with a vision of building a university that is focused on the quality of the undergraduate student experience.”
It recognizes that Jewish students — and indeed all students —“have a particular set of needs, and that by helping them meet those needs, the university advances its own cause,” Alpert said.
Chairnoff attributes the growth in Jewish life both to Fry and to Drexel’s Hillel director, Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, who started her position in 2010. She recently had a baby so was not available to comment.
“At Penn, about 22 percent of the population is Jewish. Here at Drexel, we’re about 5 or 6 percent and so you feel sort of stranded,” Chairnoff said of Jewish students, which are believed to number between 900 and 1,200 undergraduates.
De Koninck has done a “great job in getting the kids involved,” he said. “It’s not a religious thing. We offer Shabbat services, but if you get 25 at the Shabbat services, you’ll get 80 at the Shabbat dinner.”
Julie Goldman, a senior, said that when she started at the school five years ago, the Jewish community was small and not very friendly. They only had a Shabbat dinner every other week and it cost $10. Now there is a free Shabbat dinner and separate services for Orthodox, Reform and Conservative students every week.
“It really is an open space for any student from different places in life that is Jewish and wants to share their Judaism with other students,” said Goldman, who grew up in New Jersey and Israel.
Dennis Ross,whose presentation at the dinner dealt mostly with the turmoil surrounding Israel and the Middle East, also spoke to the value of the proposed center. It could “be a forum to help with Jewish identity” at a time when many on campus, including many Jewish students, are critical of Israel and question its right to exist.
“It could also help educate and it could also challenge those whose approach is not really an honest approach in terms of their criticism,” said Ross. “If you want to be critical of Israeli policies, that’s legitimate, but if you want to challenge the state’s right to exist, that’s something profoundly different and profoundly wrong.”
For more information on Drexel Hillel, see the following article .