New Jewish center for U. of C. students

Staff Writer

Jewish students at the University of Chicago have another option on campus to practice their religion and meet other Jewish students.

Jewish U formed at the beginning of the semester as an alternative to the campus Hillel. Director Dan Libensen had previously served for six years as the director of the University of Chicago Newberger Hillel until earlier this year.

“We’re trying to take a more creative and experimental approach than may be typical of a traditional Jewish denomination,” Libensen said.

Jewish U, (jU) is operating out of Hyde Park Jewish organizations like K.A.M. Isaiah Israel, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd. and the library at University Church Chicago, 5655 S. University Ave. Services are being run weekly out of student apartments.

The board of jU is comprised of the former members of the board at the university’s Newberger Hillel, which is managed by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF). In April the board and staff separated from the JUF after demanding more autonomy from the organization that controls Hillels across the state.

On April 18, a group of 30 Jewish faculty members from the U. of C., signed a letter addressed to JUF chastising the organization for firing the staff and board. The letter reads, in part “Frankly, we see your actions as a total abdication of Jewish values as well. As such, we hereby request in the strongest possible terms that you agree to the board’s request for mediation with the ultimate aim of restoring University of Chicago’s Hillel’s independence.”

Previous to the split the board and staff had been requesting more control over how programs were run and the Newberger Hillel building maintained.

Aaron Cohen, the vice president of communications at JUF, said that as a result of the split Jewish students at the university have a very diverse range of options for how they are served locally.

“The motivation of all [Jewish student] organizations is to provide opportunities that will be meaningful and engaging and fun and helpful and help students discover their identity,” Cohen said.

Between jU, the Newberger Hillel, Chabad Jewish Center and both the K.A.M. Isaiah Israel and Congregation Rodfei Zedek synagogues Jewish students in Hyde Park have plenty of options for services.

“Our mission isn’t to compete with Hillel, it is to carry on the work we were doing with Hillel,” Libensen said.

Though jU intends to launch most of its programs in January, it already has a dozen paid interns working for them and intends to employ as many as 20 when they officially launch.

Peggy Mason, jU board member, said the new organization offers a more natural home for students than a synagogue might.

“They have a lot of options. I don’t think there are too many students that are coming from outside and belong to the synagogue so a more natural home for them for religious services would be on campus,” Mason said. “There are a large number of Jews for whom culture is as central, or more central, than religion to their identity as a Jew. So for that group of people I think jU is just perfection.”