A $6 million pledge from Raymond Perelman has breathed new life into plans for a new Center for Jewish Life at the Philadelphia university.
A $6 million pledge from Raymond Perelman has breathed new life into plans for a new Center for Jewish Life at Drexel University.
The University City institution initiated the project in 2011 under the direction of its president, John Fry, but until this week's announcement only a small portion of the funds had been raised.
“It was critical to making the project a ‘go’ right now,” said Ken Goldman, senior associate vice president in the office of institutional advancement for Drexel. “We were having good luck in fundraising for it, but this one just propelled us very close to our goal and really made it a fait accompli, if you will, so we could just move right ahead right now and start the construction process.”
The costs of the proposed 14,000-square foot building, which is slated to be built on 34th Street near Lancaster Avenue and will include a kosher café, kosher kitchen, a chapel, a dining hall, a student lounge and meeting space, have risen from an initial estimate of $7 million to more than $8 million. Including previous funding, the Perelman’s donation brings the total fundraising to $7.5 million.
Goldman said the Perelman pledge “gave the university the confidence to move forward with the project right now” and will enable current students to benefit from the building, which he said is scheduled for completion in 2016.
It is the second major contribution that Perelman has made to a Drexel project in the past two years. In 2012, Perelman gave $5 million to help create the Raymond G. Perelman Plaza, which covers a large swath of open space along the former 32nd Street between Market and Chestnut streets, and is slated to be dedicated this fall.
Hillel will be the main Jewish group running activities in the new center, though overall programming will be overseen by David Ruth, the school's dean of students, according to Goldman. But he added that while the center will serve as a home for Hillel, all Jewish groups will be encouraged to reserve and utilize the building's facilities.
"Hillel is our big partner, they've been with us since day one in conceiving of the project; we work with them closely every day," explained Goldman. However "the building will certainly be open to other groups to arrange to use a space in the facility — it's not only Hillel activities."
The center will symbolize a "spirit of inclusiveness," open to all denominations, he said.
Drexel's Jewish student body is estimated at around 950 to 1,000 students, making up roughly 8 percent of all undergraduate residential students at the university, according to Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, the executive director of Drexel Hillel. Of those Jewish students, some 600 are involved with Hillel activities, she said, noting that Jewish life has grown significantly since she arrived on campus four years ago.
“Really the Center for Jewish life is about expanding both the number of Jewish students on campus and the quality of Jewish life on campus for students who matriculate at Drexel,” said de Koninck. “Lots of Hillels around don’t serve two-thirds of the Jewish students or more on their campus and there are lots of campuses with Jewish populations of 600 Jewish students or less who have buildings that are significant in size and stature on their campus — in lots of ways we are a relatively large Hillel to not have a facility."
One group that is unsure how they will be involved with the project in the future is the university's Chabad group, which is unofficially affiliated with the Drexel campus. It has also served until now as the only kosher meal option for Drexel students, so it was a blow for them when a kitchen pipe burst in February causing major damages.
Moussia Goldstein, who runs the Chabad serving Drexel with her husband, Rabbi Chaim Goldstein, said a new kitchen is close to hundred percent and they are planning on throwing a party in its honor soon. The renovations and other Chabad activities have kept them from following closely the plans for the new center, she said. Last year they had indicated they would like to be involved in the project.
“We’ve actually had a lot going on here and we’ve been very focused on everything that’s been going on at Chabad — we don’t really know what’s going on with the Jewish center,” said Goldstein. “It’s definitely a huge step forward for the Jewish community here so I hope it goes smoothly, I hope it goes well.”
Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, praised the development and expressed excitement at the commencement of the Jewish center.
“It is the result of the leadership of two great leaders: John Fry, president of Drexel, and Raymond Perelman,” Alpert said, adding that Perelman had already shown commitment to Jewish education by providing funding for the local Perelman Jewish Day School.
“He is once again providing the leadership for a project that will help educate another generation of Jewish college students at Drexel,” Alpert said. “The project would not be able to move forward without his leadership and generosity.”
Alpert added that the importance of a physical Jewish presence on campus should not be understated.
“A facility that symbolizes the presence of a Jewish community on campus becomes a source of pride for all Jews on campus,” Alpert said of the anticipated center. “It becomes a meeting place where Jews learn both to be active as Jews and to participate in the broader society.”