NU Declassified: For NU Hillel, temporary housing at Hinman means re-learning what goes into making a home

Ilana Arougheti and Dan Hu

ILANA AROUGHETI: Welcome to NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive on Northwestern’s campus. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ilana Arougheti. This week, we’re looking into temporary spaces around Northwestern and the organizations that have learned to use them. When decaying spaces and generous donations lead campus groups to renovate their spaces, it’s often seen as progress. But where do people go in the meantime, and how can daily functions continue? Northwestern’s Fiedler Hillel, usually located in a three-story house on Foster Street, has been reorganized to occupy a floor of 1835 Hinman Ave. Executive Director Michael Simon led the group through this transition.

MICHAEL SIMON: So, Hillel is the Center for Jewish Student Life on campus. We’ve been on campus for 85 years. For the last 22 years, the Fiedler Hillel Center has been on 629 Foster St. Over the past four or five years or so, we’ve been aware of all kinds of ways in which our space was not working as well as it could be. The heating and air conditioning system was having all kinds of issues throughout the building. The entrance of our space, we felt, was really not as welcoming and open. The way I joke about it is that parts of it reminded us of like a nice waiting room. And we wanted more of like a college-student-cool vibe, that we are hoping to achieve as we do this renovation.

ILANA AROUGHETI: But before they could make the renovations, they needed the money to fund it. This past summer, they got the gift to do just that.

MICHAEL SIMON: It’s a $2 million gift — I think it deserves a wow. The donors are Abel and Judy Friedman. They’re parents of an alum from like several years ago, and Abel’s brother went here in the late fifties. This is very much a labor of love for them. They’ve been donating to Hillel at Northwestern and also Hillel International for the past 25-plus years, and they’ve just been incredible supporters of the work we do.

ILANA AROUGHETI: The next step in the renovation process was finding a temporary space to hold regular activities. For Hillel, the place needed to fit a lot of needs.

MICHAEL SIMON: Because we knew we needed to have what we call swing space, so we could have Shabbat dinners there or to have even like a storefront where people who are visiting Northwestern or looking for Hillel and Jewish life could like stop by. We have these student groups – our a capella group ShireiNU, the Jewish Theater Ensemble uses our space for rehearsal. We have a program called Challah for Hunger where people make challah, so where would we find an oven? We have regular weekly Sabbath services and dinners. So we were thinking, ‘Well, we could use Norris, there’s a few other venues on campus that we’ve used for one-offs.’ So we were looking, and I got to tell you, by probably early-mid-October, we still weren’t sure if we were going to find any one space that could combine all of these disparate things. Literally, I had one of my staff colleagues going to places across the street from where you and I are sitting right now – looking at places that say ‘For Lease’ to just find out would there be a potential place where we could be in for a short-term lease.

ILANA AROUGHETI: That’s when the student affairs office pointed Hillel to the closed-down dorm, Hinman.

MICHAEL SIMON: They had realized that Hinman was not going to be renovated this year as it originally had been planned and those plans are on hold, so they and we started looking at this space with all those things I just described to you to see, like, is it possible? And if it is possible, what would it take in terms of cleaning it up, refurbishing some of the spaces and how we would actually move in. All that happened very quickly – within three weeks we had decided.

ILANA AROUGHETI: With one floor as opposed to the three floors on Foster, Hillel had to try hard to squeeze everything they needed into the temporary space. But they made it work.

MICHAEL SIMON: We moved most of our decent furniture into the Hinman space. We were hoping – and it’s turned out to be true – to give a little bit of the feel of what you would have experienced when you went into 629 Foster in Hinman. It’s been kind of amazing. We’ve basically squished that all onto one floor of Hinman, but it’s a longer space. So we have multiple small to medium to larger meeting rooms. We have multiple offices. We have like a little entry area and a smaller lobby area. We’ve changed the configuration to feel like we have all the functions that we had before.

ILANA AROUGHETI: The change has made Hillel staffers and students rethink how they run events. Since the space is so small, they’ve had to move some of their meetings out of the building, which has made them connect more with the rest of campus life.

MICHAEL SIMON: A lot of our work is both to be a place that’s home for students who want to come and hang out, but also we’re trying to meet Jewish students wherever they are on campus, so it’s nice for our staff and our other student leaders to feel like, ‘I need to get out of the building and go meet people where they are.’

ILANA AROUGHETI: Still, the move has received mixed reactions from the student body. At a recent lunch at his house, Michael polled the room about the temporary space.

MICHAEL SIMON: The seniors were like, ‘We’re so bummed.’ And I was like, ‘Aren’t you excited?’ And they go, ‘No, no, we appreciate that the project had to happen, and then at some point somebody was going to be out of the building, we were just sorry that it’s us.’ And the first-years were like, ‘This is awesome.’ Because, they’re feeling it much more as a temporary move, and they can see that there’s going to be a great outcome. And they’re going to hopefully enjoy the next three years in a renovated space and be able to kind of make that their own.

ILANA AROUGHETI: One thing Simon and his colleagues worried about was how to give agency back to student groups that had customized their own corners of the old Hillel house. For example, the Jewish Learning Fellowship, a dinner and discussion group drawing 15 to 20 students per quarter, had to adapt to the loss of their basement hangout spot.

MICHAEL SIMON: In our regular building, JLF had taken over the basement space and kind of made it into their own with like warm lighting and comfy seating and stuff, and they had that down, they had it done already. And so then we moved into this new Hinman space and it was like, ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen with JLF? Is it going to feel really different?’ But they’ve found a space and made that their own and students are — they’re loving it. On Friday night it feels like you’re at Hillel. A lot of the reason why something feels like Hillel has nothing to do with the space. It has everything to do with the people. I’m grateful and reassured that at the end of the day, this isn’t about what space we’re in or what the actual physical structure. The physical structure follows the people who make it into their own space and their own community.

ILANA AROUGHETI: As the Hillel community prepares to move back into the new home underway at 629 Foster, Simon and his colleagues continue to work on building a more universal sense of home for all Jewish students on campus.

MICHAEL SIMON: So Hillel’s mission is to inspire every Jewish student at Northwestern to make a meaningful and enduring commitment to Jewish life. We try to enrich their lives so that they’ll enrich the campus. They’ll enrich the Jewish community. And we’re crazy ambitious, and we want them to go out and enrich the world. And all of that is connected to –- we understand and believe that people have multiple identities that they are balancing all the time. And we hope that Jewish students will try to tap into whatever part of their Jewish identity they want to tap into while they’re in college.

ILANA AROUGHETI: That’s it for this week. Thank you to Michael for letting us get an inside look at Hillel’s temporary location. This is NU Declassified. We’ll see you in our next episode every other week. This episode was reported and produced by me, Ilana Arougheti, and Dan Hu. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The Editor in Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

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