It was 40 years ago that Lehigh’s first Hillel House opened on Summit Street, and while members of the university’s Jewish community found a warm, welcoming space in the converted double home, it was too small to host all the activities and students who wanted to be involved.
On Sunday, a new Jewish Student Center (JSC) was dedicated just blocks away at 233 W. Packer Ave. in a large, historic stone home with enough space for a kosher kitchen, dining room, student lounge and game room, plenty of study spaces, a meditation room, prayer room for student-led religious services, and offices for additional staff to oversee expanded programming and student engagement initiatives.
“It’s important to have a place for the Jewish community to come together for celebrating Shabbat and holidays, to be able to get together and have a home away from home,” said Rabbi Steven Nathan, endowed director of Jewish Student Life and associate chaplain of the university. “Community is such an essential part of Judaism.”
A recent leadership gift made by Linda Kagan Horowitz ’86 ’18P ’19PG ’21P and Seth Horowitz ’18P ’19PG ’21P supports the Office of Jewish Student Life and student-run Hillel Society, both of which operate out of the JSC. The gift helped hire a full-time engagement and program associate and student peer engagement and programming staff. Lehigh’s Chaplain’s Office, Disability Support Services and the Parents’ Fund will also benefit.
The gift, as well as the new location on campus, has allowed the center to host more programs and reach two to three times as many students, Nathan said.
Roger Simon, a professor emeritus of history, spearheaded the development of Lehigh’s first Hillel House.
Simon, who became the Hillel faculty advisor in 1979, recalls that one of the first things students asked him about was obtaining dedicated meeting space in the Clayton University Center (CUC).
“They saw there was a Black student lounge and a women’s center,” Simon said. “They felt they also wanted a physical presence of their own.”
Simon’s immediate thought was that space in the CUC was “like Boardwalk and Park Place,” limited and highly contested for. At the time, Jewish students would meet in empty classrooms on campus, and Shabbat dinners and brunches were held at the Brith Sholom Community Center at W. Packer and Brodhead avenues at what is now Lehigh’s Mohler Lab.
Simon knew students’ time at Brith Sholom was limited because members of the synagogue were looking to move, though that wouldn’t take place until 1984. He began reaching out to Lehigh administrators at the time to see if there might be a building available on campus. Students were enthusiastic about the idea.
“I think they liked the idea of being separate from (Brith Sholom) and the idea of having their own dedicated space was important,” Simon said. “It’s an indicator of physical presence on campus, planting your flag, so to speak.”
Administrators identified an off-campus twin home available for sale on Summit Street. They had originally been looking at it for a sorority house, but decided the space was not appropriate, Simon said. Lehigh officials at the time supported the project, but did not wish to directly own the building.
Under Simon’s leadership, the non-profit Jewish Student Advisory Council was formed to own and operate the property. The council was able to raise a down payment and move into the Summit Street house in 1982. Fundraising among Jewish alumni and the local community paid for extensive renovations.
The building housed six students in single rooms on the second floor. The income from the rentals enabled the council to pay its mortgage on the property. The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley also provided an annual subsidy to support the building and program.
After the mortgage was paid, the student rooms were used for recreational and study space. The Hillel House was later renamed the Jewish Student Center.
The property served the center’s needs for a very long time, but over time the building incurred increasing maintenance costs, Simon said. For this reason, members of the center hoped to one day find space in a Lehigh-owned property.
The W. Packer Avenue property was identified by campus officials in 2020, and after some renovations, the center moved into the building in March 2021, although because of Covid delays the formal dedication took place Sunday. The building previously housed a fraternity, ROTC, a culinary house and outdoor living group, Nathan said.
Today, the center has three full-time employees including Nathan, Jane Hontz, a coordinator for the Jewish Student Center, and Tyler Katz, an engagement and program associate.
The new location is a big improvement over Summit Street, Simon said. It has a better layout and is better maintained since the building has been owned by Lehigh for so long.
The prayer room in the new space will be named after Simon and his wife Marna Simon.
“I’m very gratified we are here, that we have this new-for-us and much-enhanced property,” Simon said. “It’s a place where students can feel comfortable. Our slogan is ‘a home away from home,’ and it’s a place where they can meet other Jewish kids.”
Max Colen ’24, who along with Elisa Lipkin ’24 is co-president of the Hillel Society of Lehigh, has been involved with Hillel since his first year at Lehigh in 2020. The new center provides a warm, welcoming and safe feeling that students enjoy, Colen said.
“From the downstairs lounge room with the bean bag chairs, a ping pong table, and a TV with a Wii set up …to numerous student study rooms, living room, and large dining room, there are so many areas for students to interact and relax,” Colen said.
The Jewish community’s impact on campus has grown significantly in the past year because of a variety of events, he added.
Activities at the center include weekly Shabbat dinners, Mac and Cheese Mondays where students get to sample Nathan’s famous macaroni and cheese, Sundaes on the Porch and prayer services and celebrations for the Jewish holidays. Recently, the Hillel Society of Lehigh partnered with the Asian Cultural Society and the Chinese Students & Scholars Association for a Moon Festival Shabbat. Hillel is also working closely with groups like Nazun (formerly Challah for Hunger) and the Lehigh Community Service Office to battle food insecurity through events such as baking challah, an egg-based braided bread made without milk or butter traditionally eaten on the Sabbath and holidays.
Lipkin said the center was one of the few places she was able to find a sense of community on campus when she first arrived at Lehigh. The pandemic was prevalent that year, but Lipkin said she was able to engage with JSC programs over Zoom and it helped her feel less isolated.
“In general, the JSC is one of my favorite places to go on campus, whether I want to socialize with friends at our Shabbat dinners every week or just have a quiet place to study,” she said. “I have met many amazing people and some of my closest friends through my involvement with Hillel, and my Lehigh experience would be drastically different without JSC.”
Those who are interested in Jewish life at Lehigh can visit the Jewish Life section of the website or email email@example.com. You can also follow the Office of Jewish Student Life on Facebook and Instagram @lehighhillel.