By Cindy Mindell
NEW LONDON – In just a few months, the first-ever Connecticut College Hillel House will open its doors on campus. The 6,700-square-foot Zachs Hillel House is being constructed on the north end of campus and will include a conference room, library, study space, kosher kitchen, and social space. The new facility will provide space for Shabbat services and holiday celebrations, as well as lectures, study sessions, and communal meals.
The new Hillel house is made possible by a combination of college-led fundraising and a $1 million gift from the Zachs family. Connecticut entrepreneur and philanthropist Henry M. Zachs has funded Hillel houses at Trinity College in Hartford and University of Connecticut in Storrs, and recently set up funds at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford dedicated to each of the three houses.
Currently, the Jewish student organization meets at various locations on campus, including the nondenominational Harkness Chapel. The student-run organization, which also engages cadets from the nearby U.S. Coast Guard Academy, is led by part-time director Rachel Sherriff and assisted by faculty advisor Prof. Jefferson Singer and campus chaplain Rabbi Aaron Rosenberg.
“Connecticut College Hillel is an active and engaging group on our campus,” says Claudia Highbaugh, dean of religious and spiritual life. “With a newly-dedicated space on campus, Hillel will grow by encouraging religious and cultural discourse and providing a gathering space for our college family and friends.”
Zachs says that the idea for the new facility was planted when he met Jewish students from Connecticut College at a Trinity College Hillel Shabbat dinner. “We started talking about Jewish life at Connecticut College and I thought a Hillel house was a good idea,” Zachs recalls.
For nearly 30 years, Hillel has been under the supervision of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut (JFEC), which not only helps with funding, but also hires and oversees the part-time director, who connects students with families and programs in the local Jewish community.
JFEC executive director Jerry Fischer also worked with Fr. Larry LaPointe, chaplain at Connecticut College from 1979 to 2012, to convert Harkness Chapel into a multi-faith space. The two arranged for the cross to be removed from the building’s steeple and Fischer received a Torah scroll from his father, whose New York Chinatown congregation was closing down. The Torah is housed in a portable ark provided by the college.
Fischer says that the concept of a Hillel house took shape when Zachs visited the eastern Connecticut campus three years ago. “We knew of Henry Zachs and he knew of our work at Hillel,” Fischer recalls. “I brought him to campus and we had a wonderful meeting with the Hillel students and he became excited about the possibilities. Then Henry had a meeting with the Connecticut College hierarchy and became more excited.”
Fischer and Zachs identified a suitable property next to campus that could be converted into a Hillel house. “But Henry, in his courage, turned to the people at the college and said, ‘If you give me some land on the campus, I will build a Hillel house,’” Fischer says. The administration offered a site on campus and is now in the process of fundraising for programming and operations.
According to Amy Martin, the college’s manager of media relations, throughout his tenure Connecticut College president Leo I. Higdon, Jr. has been committed to enhancing and supporting diversity at Connecticut College. The Hillel house will benefit the entire community by providing additional space for spiritual, cultural and social events, and providing a dedicated space for the very active campus Hillel, says Martin, and will also strengthen ties to the community by allowing the college to host public events for those who practice or are interested in the Jewish faith.
“The new Hillel House will be an asset to Connecticut College and the greater New London community,” says Higdon. “Students are thrilled to have a space for spiritual and intellectual gatherings, including kosher meals and interfaith discussions and lectures. I am very grateful to Henry Zachs, whose generosity made this important project possible.”
The Zachs Hillel House is expected to open this spring and will serve as a resource for the entire Connecticut College community as well as students from the Coast Guard Academy, whose Jewish Cadets Club is also overseen by JFEC. “For me, it’s a wonderful thing to help get something built for the Jewish community in eastern Connecticut,” Fischer says.
“My family and I are pleased to support the construction of a space that will promote intellectual and social growth for the entire Connecticut College community,” says Zachs. “Hillel has become a vibrant program at the college and we hope that a dedicated facility will ensure its growth into the future.”
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