Minnesota Hillel Groundbreaking Sets Stage For Future

The historic Minnesota Hillel building on University Avenue, open since 1955, is at this moment a torn-up concrete shell. The inside is almost entirely gray, save for the bright yellow of caution tape and the orange of traffic cones. The floors are uneven and caked with sand-like rubble.

But the demolition is just the beginning of Hillel’s long-planned renovation.

And on Sunday, Dec. 15, roughly 40 donors, alum, students, and staff members gathered at Hillel for the official groundbreaking ceremony of what will become the Johnson Family Center for Jewish Student Life, named for the renovation’s lead philanthropic gift from the Lynn and Gloria Johnson Family Foundation.

As the outside temperature was a frigid 17 degrees, speeches for the groundbreaking were held inside, with classic wearing-a-hardhat-and-holding-a-shovel photos taken in front of the building afterwards.

Jon Applebaum speaks at the Minnesota Hillel groundbreaking on behalf of his grandparents, Lynn and Gloria Johnson. (Photo by Lev Gringauz).

Jon Applebaum speaks at the Minnesota Hillel groundbreaking on behalf of his grandparents, Lynn and Gloria Johnson. (Photo by Lev Gringauz).

“It is beshert [a successful match] that through their family foundation, Lynn and Gloria Johnson are able to share in the construction of a new facility,” said Jon Applebaum, speaking for the Johnson family, “where students are empowered to create their own paths, foster their own Jewish identity, and always have a safe, inclusive, welcoming environment as they begin their adult lives on campus and beyond.”

Beginning with Lynn (z’’l) and Gloria Johnson, three generations of the family have attended the University of Minnesota. In 1953, Lynn started the Johnson Brothers Liquor Co, a national distributor of beer, wine, and spirits, and since the 1980s, the Johnson Family Foundation has been supporting scholarships and programs at several universities, as well as giving to Jewish causes like the Sholom Johnson Hospice Center in St. Paul.

The groundbreaking ceremony was also an opportunity for an update on the renovation’s finances. Debbie Stillman, campaign chair for Hillel’s fundraising efforts, said that $5.7 million of the $8 million campaign have been raised.

“We have a little ways to go, but with only 62 or so donors in the campaign, I think we’re doing alright,” she said.

The campaign goal, originally $7 million, was upped to 8 million due to hidden structural issues and the amount of asbestos found in the 64-year-old building, along with security-related expenses. The added cost of the renovation would have eaten into a planned $1 million endowment for future building maintenance, making an increase in the campaign goal necessary.

Despite the increase, Hillel’s executive director Benjie Kaplan told me he isn’t worried about meeting the fundraising goal. “The Hillel Board felt strongly that having raised close to [$5.7 million] in just 6 months, we were in a good position to meet the increased goal over the coming year,” Kaplan said.

“Everything is still on track for an August opening…but we have $2.3 million still left to raise, and there’s a lot of work still ahead of us.”

As the renovation process continues, Jewish students have a similar attitude of pragmatic optimism. Until Hillel reopens in the Fall of 2020, the staff and students are working out of the basement of the University of Minnesota YMCA. Carli Shapiro, a senior and the student president of Hillel, says the change has helped Jewish students step out of their comfort zone of the Hillel building, and explore new locations for programming on campus.

“Change is always really hard, and I’m not going to say that it’s been an easy process,” Shapiro said, “but it’s been incredible to turn to our 40-plus student leaders and say, ‘okay, it’s truly in our hands now, what do you want to do? We’re not tied by anything, we’re not tied down by a building, we don’t need to be in this space, where do you want to go.’”

And motivation is not in short supply.

“[The students] have really invested everything into this transition,” Shapiro said. “We know that there’s going to be this incredible thing on the other side, but at the same time, we don’t want to throw away the year. We don’t want to sit here and say ‘oh, well, next year it will be better.’ There’s a whole group of seniors who won’t get to be in this building.”

Shapiro’s words, coupled with just about every donor, student, and community member beaming with joy during the groundbreaking ceremony, led me to comment to Kaplan about the abundance of positivity in a renovation process and fundraising campaign that, for many other organizations, would not necessarily have so many people in such high spirits.

Benjie Kaplan, Minnesota Hillel executive director, shows a rendering of the new front of the building. (Photo by Lev Gringauz).

Benjie Kaplan, Minnesota Hillel executive director, shows a rendering of the new front of the building. (Photo by Lev Gringauz).

Kaplan paused for a moment, and said: “It is amazing to see the community come together over an important project that is not Minneapolis or St. Paul. It’s a thing that’s right smack-dab in the middle, supporting the future of our community.

“And I really strongly believe that when this project is done, that over the course of the five or 10 years post-construction, the community will see a huge influx of young leaders coming into the community thanks to this amazing institution.”