Illinois campus offers wonderful Jewish experience

On my mother’s recent 32nd yahrzeit date, I was visiting my daughter in central Illinois.
Where to go to say Kaddish? We decided on the University of Illinois Hillel, which is very near her home. And, as so often happens, much learning accompanied our performance of religious duty (this one, of course, being a mitzvah of pleasant memory far beyond obligation…).
First thing I learned:  The U of I is where the entire Hillel movement began! This first Hillel in the world was established here, on this Champaign-Urbana campus, in 1923, and has been thriving ever since. Quite rightly, it’s proud of itself; I now have my own Illini orange-and-blue Hillel T-shirt as testimony!
Second thing I learned: This Hillel is far more than “just” that — it is truly a community center for all area Jews. Since 2007, it has been housed in the beautiful Margie K. and Louis N. Cohen Center for Jewish Life, an impressive multi-purpose complex that embodies and celebrates everything good and important in Judaism. After our Shabbat visit, my daughter and I returned a few days later for two back-to-back events attended by many others who are not students. But first…
When we reported in at the center at 5:30 p.m. on our yahrzeit Friday, we were warmly welcomed and offered a tour of the facility. Our student guide told us she’s a Catholic, volunteering here so that no Jewish student has to work on Shabbat! With her, we saw the extensive facilities for gathering, study, play, cooking, eating and worshiping.
For the latter, we had an erev-Shabbat choice: After a mass candle-lighting and blessing in the lobby just before 6 p.m., three simultaneous services were offered in three separate venues within the Center: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, all student-led, all one-hour long. We chose Conservative; my only “complaint” was that our young “rabbi” officiated at the speed of light to make absolutely sure we’d be on time for the Shabbat meal following.
Every Jewish student on campus must have been there for that dinner — it’s apparently the social event of the week (although kosher meals are always available here). The main dish on this evening was Israeli-style chicken schwarma, but of course there was also a vegetarian option. We all said the motzi together first; then enjoyed cafeteria-style service, with random seating at large, round tables. Most affecting: We noticed how easily and comfortably these many young people included and assisted the few special-needs students scattered among them.
Also special: We returned to Hillel several evenings later for a community “double-header.” The first event, attended by families as well as students, was a pre-holiday display and taste-testing of challahs, honey and honey cakes, offered by area vendors; simultaneously, those browsing and placing advance Rosh Hashanah orders could enjoy a light supper of grilled salmon on skewers and mini-latkes (choice of white or sweet potato) made in the Center’s own kosher kitchen. Afterward, there was an adult showing of the newest Ken Burns documentary, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.
More learning: I found out about this screening through extensive coverage in Champaign’s daily newspaper, which included a lengthy interview — accompanied by many new and old photos — of area resident Peter Braunfeld, 86, a retired U of I professor. A native of Vienna, he was brought to the United States by his parents when he was 8 years old, one of the many families rescued through the covert World War II era actions of Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his activist wife Martha. Sadly, Braunfeld’s health kept him from attending this local Federation-sponsored “watch party” in person, but that evening, I found out that of the 26,010 Righteous Among the Nations currently honored at Israel’s Yad Vashem, only five are Americans — and the Sharps are two of them!
My simple family visit turned into an incredible pre-holiday learning experience I’m so happy to share here. Shana Tova, all!

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