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A Home of One’s Own
In years past many Jews coming to Yale felt they had to “check their Jewishness at the door.” The new Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life is a place for Yale’s Jews both to celebrate their heritage and to reach out beyond it.

Throughout Jewish history, the Diaspora—the dispersal of Jews around the world that began with their exile from Palestine in 586 B.C.E.—has been a fact of civic and religious life. But in recognition of the desire and hope that one day all of the dispersed will be able to return to the “Promised Land,” Jews each year offer a prayer at the traditional family meal in celebration of Passover. It concludes: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Since Yale’s first Jewish student—Moses Simon—arrived in New Haven in 1805, Jews at the University have known their own kind of Diaspora. “All the various religious and cultural organizations were scattered around campus,” says James Ponet '68, who has served as Yale’s Jewish chaplain for the past 14 years. Indeed, on Friday nights during the school year, there would be a Reform service in Branford College, an Orthodox service under Harkness Tower, and a Conservative service on High Street. Throughout the week, the Young Israel House Kosher Kitchen served meals on Crown Street, and dozens of Jewish organizations—among them, an a cappella singing group called Magevet, a quarterly journal known as Urim v'Tumim, a drama club, Garin (an environmental group), a Klezmer band, and a women’s group—met wherever space was available.

Tending such a widespread flock, which collectively falls under the banner of Yale Hillel (a 54-year-old organization independent of the University), has been a taxing task for Rabbi Ponet and his colleague, Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, who on some days spent as much time traversing the campus as meeting with students. But on September 10, with the formal dedication of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, the jobs of the rabbis became a little less, well, aerobic. The opening of the Center—at 80 Wall Street across from Silliman College—puts an end to the local Diaspora by bringing a disparate array of activities under one roof. After years of wandering, Yale’s Jewish community has a home of its own.

The advent of Beit Joseph—Hebrew for the “house of Joseph”—is a happy outcome few Jewish alumni might have envisioned. Alan Slifka ’51E, whose family made a major donation toward the building in the name of his late father Joseph, a New York real estate financier, spoke for many when he said, “When I was at Yale, you parked your Jewishness at the door.”

The reasons are painful to recall. Jews had been relatively welcome at Yale throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but as Dan Oren ’79 records in Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale, their burgeoning numbers in the early 1900s prompted Robert Nelson Corwin, who was the admissions board director from 1920 to 1933, to tell President James Rowland Angell that “there seems to be no question that the University as a whole has about all of this race that it can well handle.”

In Corwin’s time, more than 13 percent of entering freshmen were Jewish. The admissions director wanted to reduce that number to below 10 percent, and through a variety of strategems, particularly limits on financial aid and an increase in the number of alumni sons admitted, he and his associates achieved their goal. To be sure, Yale was hardly alone in such discriminatory practices. According to Oren, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Dartmouth had similar ceilings. But the extent of the policies did nothing to ennoble them.

The “limitation of numbers,” as the thinly disguised quota system was called, was “reprehensible,” says Herbert A. Friedman ’38—and effective in more ways than one. For when Friedman, who became a rabbi and is now president emeritus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation in New York City, scanned the last names of the 750 men in his class, he discovered that only about 3 percent of them were obviously Jewish. “Often, we couldn’t even get a minyan,” he says, referring to the traditional requirement that there be 10 men present before a religious service could proceed.

Rabbi Friedman suspects that there were more Jews on campus, but “they were like the Marranos—the ‘hidden Jews’—of 15th century Spain. We couldn’t get them out of the closet.”

Ironically, however, they had nothing to fear. “I never had the slightest problem with anti-Semitism at Yale,” says Friedman.

That remains true, notes Chavi Karkowsky '98 who nevertheless worried that as an Orthodox Jew, her adherence to what she calls a “high maintenance religion” might have caused her to be ostracized from both the University, as well as the mainstream Jewish, communities. But her professors have willingly made accommodations for the requirements of her faith, and her friends, Jews and non-Jews alike, don’t see her as a fanatic. “There’s a rekindled interest in looking at people’s roots and in the traditions of being Jewish,” Karkowsky, president of the Slifka Center’s kosher kitchen, says.

Jews, clearly, are out of hiding, and to show how different the landscape has become at Yale, Rabbi Ponet points out that these days, no one even has a precise count of the number of Jews on campus. (For admissions and administrative purposes, they are not considered part of any monitored minority.) Ponet estimates that somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the College population would consider itself, to a greater or lesser extent, Jewish. “This is a wide-ranging group of students whose Judaism runs the gamut from religious, political, and cultural to culinary and social,” he says. “The Slifka building represents the confluence of all those elements, and then some.”

Indeed, to judge from the several hundred students who have been packing the Center’s Friday evening shabbat dinners and participating in other activities, there’s something of a Jewish revival on campus. “There’s a hunger for community,” says Rabbi Cohen-Anisfeld. “The highly individualistic way of life had a lot of appeal, but now, people are realizing its limitations. There’s also something larger going on—a longing for meaning and purpose.”

The rabbis hope the Slifka Center can help meet those needs.

Designed by Harold Roth '57MArc, a partner in the New Haven firm of Roth and Moore Architects, the 20,000-square-foot, four-story facility is the tangible fulfillment of the dreams of Yale’s Jewish community. And certainly no other architect has been so involved in those dreams for so long. Roth started working on the project 31 years ago with Rabbi Richard Israel, who headed Hillel from 1959 to 1972. “We spent a lot of time talking about what form the building should take and whom it should serve,” recalls Roth. “Should we build a Yale synagogue, a conference center, a social club, or even an eating club? In the end, we decided to try to combine everything under one roof.”

But the project never got going, in large part because there was no suitable Yale ground available for it at the time. Four years ago, however, then-President Benno Schmidt offered Hillel a long term lease on a 68-by-82-foot piece of real estate occupied by a dilapidated row of brick buildings adjacent to Rosey’s Tailors and Cleaners on Wall Street. Hillel then had to raise $6 million for construction costs. (The group is in the process of raising an additional $5 million for an endowment fund; more than $3 million has already been pledged.) A national fundraising campaign, for which U.S. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman '64, '67;LLB, and Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law and Public Affairs Eugene V. Rostow '33, '37LLB served as honorary cochairmen, quickly found a corps of donors, many of whose names have since been carved in the Jerusalem stone accents on the facility’s walls.

With the Slifka gift and other pledges from Yale alumni for the building’s construction in hand, the University helped speed the project along with a $1.5 million financing package. Following the dedication, Alan Slifka, a Wall Street asset manager whose philanthropy ranges from the state of Israel to New York City’s Big Apple Circus, explained the major reasons for his family’s contribution. Contrary to his own College experience, students are now free to celebrate their heritage, Slifka said. “I hope the Center will provide a place where members of the University community can develop their Jewishness with pride and understanding. But I hope it will also offer a place from which Jews can reach out to people in other communities, at Yale, in New Haven, and in the wider world.”

Slifka himself has provided a model for such outreach through the creation of the Abraham Fund, which he cofounded in 1989 for the purpose of promoting better understanding between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The foundation fosters peaceful coexistence by providing funds for a wide range of projects—schools, day-care centers, summer camps, and the like—that Israelis of every religious and ethnic background can undertake together. “You can intellectualize all you want about human relations and tolerance, but there’s really no substitute for working with someone from another community,” says Slifka.

Harold Roth says that in planning the center, he sought to create a place that would simultaneously allow for inward-looking religious contemplation and study, while nudging the building’s inhabitants to take part in the wider world. “It had to be welcoming and comfortable for all persuasions of the Jewish faith,” says the architect. But given the reality that Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Chasidic Jews don’t always get along, bringing everyone under one roof was not without its perils.

“We’re going to learn mutual tolerance and respect,” insists Marci Sternheim, Hillel’s executive director, emphasizing that the infighting between the various varieties of Judaism tends to be a “bigger deal” in the outside world than at Yale. “It’s going to be an educational experience, and I expect a lot of richness to result when things come together.”

Creating a unified setting for a diversified constituency posed a special challenge for the architect, because in order to meet the needs of Orthodox Jews, the entire building had to be kosher. This, Roth soon discovered, entailed far more than just providing a kitchen and dining area that would pass muster with Rabbi Michael Whitman, the local arbiter of religious laws known collectively as kasrut.

In a proper eating place, for example, there had to be two separate kitchens: one for preparing foods made with dairy products, and one for meat dishes. And, of course, there had to be two separate sets of dishes and silverware.

Then there was the Orthodox synagogue. The shul, which is housed in a room called the Beit Midrash, not only had to be dividable—Orthodox men and women are not allowed to pray together—it also had to face due east. Unfortunately, Roth learned, the grid on which the New Haven street plan is based proved to be “slightly off the north-south axis.” This meant that the synagogue would, strictly speaking, be slightly off as well. To ensure that it would conform to the dictates of the religious compass, the architect equipped the shul with a curved window, some part of which points precisely in the proper direction.

The architect faced another unexpected challenge in crafting a sukkah, the outdoor structure in which Jews pray and eat during the fall harvest festival of Succoth. Generally, sukkahs are ephemeral structures and come down once the celebration is over, but Center officials decided to make a permanent sukkah part of the brick courtyard at the back of the building. The decision got Roth into some treacherous theological waters.

“The essence of the sukkah—the word means ‘thatched hut’—is the roof,” says Rabbi Ponet, “and a truly kosher roof has to shade out 51 percent of the sky but be open enough so that you can discern stars. Also, while it can’t be made from things that are living, like trees or vines, everything that goes into it has to have been alive at one point.”

That requirement forced a change in plans. “Jewish law didn’t allow us to use laminated beams,” says the architect, who ultimately used solid redwood. And there were, it turned out, easier things to find than the three, 24-foot-long,12x12s that now support the sukkah’s roof.

“It’s been a really fascinating project,” Roth says. “There are lots of things in this building that are unique.” One of the most striking is the color of the wood ceilings in the Sylvia Slifka Chapel, in Rabbi Ponet’s office (which includes a working fireplace with a Jerusalem stone mantle), and in other rooms. The rabbi, citing if not scripture then at least Jewish history, has dubbed the color “Vilna vermillion,” a reddish hue that is identical, says Ponet, to that used by publishers in the city of Vilna (now Vilnius) in Lithuania. “This was the intellectual and publishing headquarters of Eastern European Jews,” he says, “and this red was their signature color. Harold Roth, whose name means 'red' in German, incidentally, clearly had this in mind when he chose the color.” (The architect says that he simply liked vermillion.)

For a building on such a cramped site, the Slifka Center is surprisingly open and airy. There are no corridors; all rooms open off central, courtyard-like spaces, which, says the architect, can be used for both formal meetings and informal gatherings. Much of the eastern wall by the staircases is made from glass block, which provides a measure of privacy without blocking out the sun.

Roth explains such gestures by saying he was striving for a feeling of inclusion rather than separation. “My intention is that the Slifka Center should be a Yale place, as well as a Jewish place,” he says, citing as another example the turret enclosing a circular staircase leading up from the Center’s library to what will be a video archive. His hope was to evoke the Collegiate Gothic creations of James Gamble Rogers elsewhere on the campus; the rough, sand-molded, Virginia red brick of the outside walls was intended to “talk” to Silliman College and the other buildings on Wall Street. David Kurtzer '97, a philosophy major and a coordinator of Hillel, is quick to endorse the architect’s efforts to set up a symbolic dialogue with communities beyond the Jewish one. “Everybody’s welcome here,” says Kurtzer. “This is not a Jewish residential college, and it’s not a replacement for campus life in a diverse community.” Dan Oren spoke for many at the dedication in suggesting that the Center would serve as a cultural and spiritual bridge. “It can bring people from so many backgrounds together,” said Oren, “and equally important, it reflects the arrival of not just a people or a culture, but of a faith.”

Oren traces the beginning of that process in earnest largely to the efforts of Kingman Brewster, Yale’s President from 1963 to 1977, and his dean of admissions, R. Inslee “Inky” Clark. Brewster said repeatedly that he wanted to extend Yale’s reach beyond the traditional constituencies and make it more of a meritocracy; he charged Clark with recruiting the best students, regardless of background, for the College.

Clark quickly succeeded—too well, according to some disgruntled alumni, whose sentiments were summed up in a letter to this magazine in 1974. The correspondent wrote to express his shock that the admissions office had “turned down scores of sons of Yale men who richly deserved to succeed their fathers and scoured the ghettos of New York and elsewhere to recruit freshmen.” The College, he declared, had become a “Jewish haven. The place we knew and loved has been wrecked.”

Similar sentiments, of course, have been voiced about the arrival of women, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Catholics, the Irish, Native Americans, scholarship students—just about any minority group who, in “joining the club,” seemed to threaten the dominance of those in the majority. That fact informed many of the remarks made at the ceremonies dedicating the new building. “The Slifka Center is not a way of separating people,” said author Calvin Trillin '57, who served as master of ceremonies. “It’s great that when Jews come to Yale, this is here for them, but our overriding concern is that it be accessible to everyone.” Drawing on his background as both a humorist and a writer on food (Alice, Let’s Eat and American Fried), Trillin conjured up a gustatory scenario that would fulfill the Center’s mission—and take full advantage of its first-class kitchen. “I’d like to see an annual latkes-and-greens cook-off,” said Trillin, but added that the Hillel team would have to cook the greens, while a culinary team of non-Jews handled making the potato pancakes. To the objection that greens are often boiled with a hamhock, which is not exactly kosher, Trillin replied: “I’m sure we could work something out.”  the end


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