A landmark ceremony marked the beginning of a new era for Jewish life at Drexel University.
Today, it’s merely a hole in the ground.
But come next September, the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life on the campus of Drexel University, figures to be, well, groundbreaking.
“It’s spectacular,” said Hugh Chairnoff, chairman of the Drexel Hillel board of overseers, of the $9 million project, which broke ground October 7. “There will be nothing like it in the Philadelphia area. John Fry — Drexel’s president — “and the University have made an extraordinary commitment to the Jewish community. Hillel will be occupying the building, but Drexel will assume the financial burden.”
The plan is for the three-story, 13,000-square foot center to open in time for the 2016 High Holidays. In an effort to accommodate all denominations, there will be three separate chapels, along with meeting rooms and a first floor lounge.
The hope is to make this a place where Jewish students — both those living on campus and commuting — can feel at home away from home.
“The point of it is to make Drexel a school of choice for Jewish students locally,” said Ken Goldman, senior associate vice president of presidential initiatives, who has spent much of the last four years helping put the project together. “We’d like to make it a greater school nationally as well as locally.
“This will give students an opportunity to learn more about their tradition and to meet other students,” he added. “It will serve a variety of social and religious functions.”
Without the generosity of the Perelman family, which donated $6 million for the center — with the rest raised entirely by private donors — it wouldn’t have been possible. “My father is a man of few words and great deeds,” said Ron Perelman of his 98-year-old father, who did not speak at the groundbreaking on 34th Street between Arch and Race streets.
Perelman added that his father instilled in him the importance of giving back, lessons he learned through Judaism. Already a noted educational philanthropist through institutions like Perelman Jewish Day School and with the Perelman Plaza on Drexel campus, the Perelman Center for Jewish Life is his latest project — one that may well soon become the most recognized. South African-born architect Stanley Saitowitz, based in San Francisco, has designed a building that is bound to draw notice. Noted for designing synagogues and the haunting New England Holocaust Museum, which displays tall towers representing Nazi death camps — each filled with replica “prisoner’ numbers like those tattooed on the arms — the Jewish Life Center is his homage to a local inspiration.
“He was as a big fan of Louis Kahn,” said Chairnoff, referring to the late Philadelphia architect who designed the Yale Art Gallery, Richards Medical Research Lab at Penn and the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex. “He wanted to do something to honor Kahn.”
The end result should provide the 900 or so Jewish students at Drexel a unique locale. “The new center is going to be a transformation for Jewish life at Drexel,” said Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, who’s played an integral role in the process since arriving at the university six years ago. “It’s the first time ever we will have a standalone facility on campus and will amplify the wonderful work our student leaders are already doing.
“It will transform the landscape of Drexel and really make Drexel a premier destination for students looking for dynamic, vibrant Jewish life on campus.”
In these days of rampant violence on campuses — and particularly in light of a 2014 incident which occurred between a Temple Hillel representative and a pro-Palestinian sympathizer — security is an issue they’ve already begun to address.
“As with any Jewish facility, security is of utmost concern,” said de Koninck, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, whose family is of Flemish descent. “We’re working together with security officials who have lots of experience to put together a plan to secure the building. But the University was committed to putting this facility in the heart of campus. This will be our home.”
“What we’re trying to do is welcome students of all types and create all types of Jewish experience,” she continued. “Right now there’s a big hole on 34th Street. It will be exciting to watch the building go up.”
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