Hillel’s Last First Shabbat Offers Excitement For Future

In most ways, the Friday evening of September 6 was just another first-Shabbat-of-the-year at Minnesota Hillel.

University of Minnesota students filtered in to help set up for dinner. Hillel’s sanctuary was arranged for Kabbalat Shabbat services in a circle, with printed leaflets of Debbie Friedman’s Mi Sheberach, the prayer for healing, placed on every maroon chair. The sounds of cooking in the basement kosher kitchen could be heard faintly at the entrance.

“My first couple years on the job, I always worried that people would show up,” said Benjie Kaplan, Hillel’s executive director. But now, there’s no reason to worry. About an hour after I spoke with Kaplan, with Shabbat on a roll, Hillel was packed.

“It’s just about creating community and a good feel,” he said.

But the evening also held a sizzle of excitement for Hillel’s last first-Shabbat-of-the-year looking the way it does. The historic building on University Avenue that Hillel calls home will undergo a $7 million renovation over the next 12 months.

It’s a dramatic facelift for an 80-year-old organization, but one that’s been a long time coming.

“Having worked here for four years, I’ve heard Benjie talk and talk and talk about this new building and how he wants to renovate the whole thing, start fresh, and allow the students to be in a space that’s as great as the programming happening in the space,” said Mackenzie Litt, Hillel’s assistant director.

“Everyone has a really big smile on their face,” she said, “and they’re all just looking forward to seeing everything come to fruition.”

According to Kaplan, roughly $5 million of the $7 million needed to renovate Hillel has been raised since the fundraising campaign launched at Hillel’s annual Maroon and Gold Shabbat on May 3. Construction will start on November 1, by which point Hillel will work out of the nearby YMCA on campus until the grand reopening on September 1, 2020.

Amid success it’s easy to forget that, not so long ago, Hillel was in dire straits. In 2014, the organization was barely limping along, and on Kaplan’s first day as executive director he was given a contract and told to sell the nearly 60-year-old building.

Naturally, he refused.

Instead, in 2015, the Capp family donated the funds to patch Hillel up, with the understanding that the band aid-solution would last three to five years. “And guess what,” Kaplan said to me with a grin. Hillel’s post-renovation reopening in 2020 — “that’s five years!”

The transition won’t be painless. Operating out of the YMCA for most of the school year poses its own challenges – namely, how to make sure Hillel doesn’t stop being home for Jewish students.

“I definitely see the students hesitating as we’re trying to plan for a second semester and trying to figure out, you know, what does that look like?” Litt said. “Can students meet us at the YMCA? Do we have to go to Border Town or a different coffee shop on campus to make things feel the same, and make Hillel still feel at home for them?”

But Litt isn’t worried about finding the answers or losing the essential Hillel vibe. “Our community is really strong,” she said, “and the students have great ideas about where to go.”

Elana Warren, a college junior at Hillel for Shabbat (and a TC Jewfolk editorial intern), says that Hillel being at the YMCA will be “weird.” She’s never been to the YMCA before, and for now, doesn’t even know where it is. But that won’t stop her from coming to Hillel’s Shabbats and other events.

And when Hillel’s new building is ready to go in 2020, that’ll be “weird,” too.

“It’ll start off new, and then all of a sudden everyone will [tell her], ‘Wow, you’re so old. You remember the old building?’” Warren joked. She expects to get used to the new building “pretty quickly.”

Kaplan, when asked how he expects to feel in a year when Hillel is reopened, wasn’t sure what to say.

“It’s not going to be an immediate thing on September 1, that all of a sudden magic is going to happen,” Kaplan finally told me. “It’s that we’re going to then have a space where magic can happen.”