History of Harvard Hillel

Adapted from an article in the Spring 1994 newsletter as well as the book, Minding the Store at Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel," by Ruth Getz Master (1999).

The over half-century of Hillel life at Harvard began in 1944 during the dark days of World War II, developed slowly during the confusing and uncertain post-war years, survived the upheaval of the sixties, and lived to see the Jewish renaissance after 1967, which some have called "the start of the beginning of the post assimilation era." In the 1990s, Hillel assumed a new position of visibility and leadership. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, Harvard Hillel continues to grow as an essential partner organization in the life of Harvard University. According to the Unofficial Guide to Life at Harvard, Harvard Hillel is now "one of the most exciting and dynamic Jewish organizations in the country."

The Early Days

Only four students attended the very first meeting with Judah Shapiro from the Hillel Foundation. One of them, William Lee Frost, later wrote about the group's efforts to design a Hillel chapter at Harvard. The first Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, he wrote, would be "neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist" (this was before the existence of the modern State of Israel), "neither Orthodox nor Reform." Judah Shapiro hoped that it would offer, very broadly, "an intensive preview of what awaits him who is called a Jew."

To that end, students at Hillel organized religious services and celebrations, lectures, forums, and study groups. They encouraged each other to attend services at Boston synagogues and seders at the homes of the B'nai B'rith families that supported Hillel at the time. The first directors, Rabbis Harry Esriq and Maurice Zigmond, initiated student-run religious observances, lectures, dances, and study groups. There were beginner classes in Yiddish and Hebrew, Friday night Sabbath programs, and Sunday bagel brunches.

Expanding the Vision

In 1958, Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold came to serve as the Director of Harvard Hillel. He was determined to introduce greater numbers of Jewish students at Harvard to Jewish culture and religion. He had visions of a community that would serve the broad spectrum of Jews at Harvard with hopes that the University would, in time, be more accepting of Jewish difference.

The Hillel scrapbooks of the time bear the evidence of his determination. Activities expanded dramatically as Rabbi Gold reached out to students and faculty. The time was right for Hillel to enter a new era. In 1969, Hillel moved to a new building at One Bryant Street, across the street from the Harvard Divinity School. Though the numbers of Jewish students at Harvard had not changed significantly, by 1970 Hillel was sponsoring eighteen to twenty social, cultural, and religious activities a week.

One of the activities began with Rabbi Gold's notice in The Crimson of a "nontraditional morning service at Phillips Brooks House." The Worship and Study Congregation began with fewer than ten students sitting around a table, reading the bible, and discussing what was read. Egalitarian from the start, it became a place where men and women began to lead services, read from the Torah, and discuss the weekly portion. Now led by Rabbi Jim Morgan, the Worship and Study community, many of whose members have been involved since the time of Rabbi Gold's leadership, remains an active part of the Harvard Hillel community, welcoming faculty, community members, and students.

The openness and pluralism that William Frost, Rabbi Esriq, and Rabbi Zigmond encouraged in the forties and fifties continued to develop. The exploration of identity and activism of the sixties and seventies drew more Jewish students to Hillel. The resulting growth of activity was impressive; by 1979, Hillel had outgrown its home at One Bryant Street and moved to the former Iroquois Club building at 74 Mt. Auburn Street. During this period, Hillel staff was able to further their activities and increase outreach programs: attendance started to multiply; a student coordinating council was developed to plan and implement programs; and Hillel's relationship with Harvard's United Ministry became well established.

A Permanent Home

Then, fourteen years after the move to 74 Mt. Auburn Street and a half-century after Harvard Hillel purchased its very first building at Five Bryant Street, Hillel broke ground for a brand new, magnificent, permanent facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie. At a ground-breaking ceremony for the new site at 52 Mt. Auburn Street, then-Harvard President Neil Rudenstine noted that the Riesman Center for Harvard Hillel, Rosovsky Hall, will be "an open building that represents the openness of the Jewish community to Harvard, as well as Harvard's receptivity to the Jewish community."

Rabbi Gold retired in 1990. Rabbi Sally Finestone, who was Associate Director of Harvard Hillel from 1988–1990 and from 1992–1998, served as Acting Director from 1990–1992. In addition, Rabbi Finestone was the Rabbinic Advisor to Harvard Hillel's Reform Minyan form 1988–2000.

In 1993, Harvard Hillel celebrated the completion of Rosovsky Hall and welcomed a new president and director, a pre-eminent Jewish educator with a strong religious vocation, named Bernie Steinberg. Bernie served Harvard Hillel and the Harvard Jewish community as a Jewish Harvard Chaplain with distinction through 2010, nurturing some of the rising generation's most remarkable Jewish leaders.

In 2011, Harvard Hillel welcomed a new Executive Director, Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg, Ph.D. Jonah thinks about the purpose and the aims of Harvard Hillel in terms of two maps. First of all, we aim for Harvard Hillel to be on the personal map of all Jewish people and many others at Harvard, as an integral part of their spiritual lives and of the life of the University. Beyond that, we aim to be on the overall map as a premier Harvard institution of worldwide renown, showcasing the best of Jewish religion, life, and thought. Our programmatic goal is to enable and inspire participants to become creators, active ambassadors of Jewish ideas, values, and traditions, far and wide.

Our Path Continues

Harvard Hillel today is indeed a microcosm of American Jewish life, just as Judah Shapiro predicted in 1944. We have been successful in achieving the diversity and self-confidence envisioned by Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold. We continue to nurture new Jewish leaders and paradigms in the spirit of Bernie Steinberg. Today, under the directorship of Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, the scope and reach of the community of Harvard Hillel are growing in new ways. Harvard Hillel is an essential partner institution within the University, catalyzing and creating premier social, spiritual, intellectual, and cultural events and celebrations at our own Rosovsky Hall and all throughout Harvard. We are ever mindful of Henry Rosovsky's apt observation that Harvard Hillel is "about the future and our continued identity as Jews."