While Minnesota Hillel has been a fixture in Dinkytown since the mid-1950s, there has been one very notable absence from the building: accessibility. While the building’s unique brickwork stood out, so did the lack of an elevator. Which meant the home away from home for Jewish students on campus, wasn’t available for all who need it.
But when Minnesota Hillel reopened in September 2020 after 11 months of renovation bearing the name the Johnson Family Center for Jewish Student Life, the gutted-and-rebuilt building is full of inclusivity.
“There’s an elevator right in the center of the building, and the ramp [to the front door] goes with the flow and it’s easy to use,” said Vivian Wolkoff, who graduated from the University of Minnesota last spring, and was the first Ruderman Inclusion Fellow at Minnesota Hillel during her senior year. “The ramp to the bimah is so fabulous. I really hope having these physical accessibility features shifts a mindset into more inclusion and program-building.”
Benjie Kaplan, Minnesota Hillel’s executive director, said that he was proud of the communal leadership team that thought through how to make the space inclusive.
“Whether it’s students of different abilities or restrooms for all identities, it was really well thought out,” Kaplan said. “There’s plenty of room for us to adjust and make it the most welcoming space possible. It’s a huge leap forward.”
All the restrooms are handicap accessible, and only the ones on the top floor adjacent to the event space are gender-specific; the rest are gender-neutral.
The lack of accessibility for all students is something that was overlooked.
“Always being in the building in past years there was no elevator. I took it for granted being able-bodied,” said Kelsey Bailey, Hillel’s student president. “Hillel has done so much in terms of accessibility and mental health awareness.”
One of the unique touches that Wolkoff spoke glowingly about was the Sensory Study Room. It’s a windowless room with dimmable lights, an oil diffuser, and fidgets that can help students who might otherwise be easily overwhelmed with the noise and lights study in a calmer environment.
The room was made possible by a gift from the Oren and Sharron Steinfeldt Foundation. Oren Steinfeldt, who passed away six years ago, had been affected by Osgood-Schlatter Disease when he was a child and spent much of his life advocating for inclusivity.
“When I went there with [my daughter] Anne and her husband Sid for the opening, I thought ‘Oren would have really appreciated this’ as we walked in and saw how things were set up,” she said. “The thing that I like about Hillel is that it does reach out to the total community. And they did that when I was [a student] there.”
Mike and Etta Barry gave the gift for accessibility in the revamped building. The Barrys first met each other at Hillel when they were students at the U, and Etta had been a student-president and is currently on the Hillel board.
“One of the reasons I agreed to be on the board is because I was working at PACER with families and private schools, I did feel that part of my background and knowledge, I would love to try and bring into Hillel somehow,” said Barry, who is also the inclusion committee chair at Adath Jeshurun. “How can this building that’s open to everybody be as accessible to everybody as much as possible? And that was a huge part of this new building, especially with the elevator. But in a lot of other areas, too.”
Etta Barry has written about her children’s struggles with learning disabilities, and Mike Barry said that it’s important to acknowledge both learning disabilities and physical challenges in our community.
“Accessibility is just going to become more and more important as you try to reach out to other people of the community,” he said. “Anytime an institution is going through (a renovation) in the future, I think we’ve got to pay attention to that. And Etta has certainly been a really big advocate for all of that.”
Kaplan said that the renovation has also given the facility the ability to be rented by the University of Minnesota groups or classes; it had after it was built but the accessibility ended the arrangement.
“We lost that connection for the longest time because it wasn’t accessible,” he said. “I hope the upgrade lends to additional partnerships.”
Mike Barry credited Kaplan and the Hillel staff and board for being able to accomplish the fundraising needed for the renovation.
“Benjie is one of the rock star executive directors that we’ve got in the community right now,” he said. “Things that could not get done literally for the last 30 to 40 years, Benji has been able to pull off. We’re wanting to support Hillel because we had something that was critical for our community.”
Said Kaplan: “If anything can be said at the end of my time, it’s that the space is inclusive and welcoming.”