SV Illini Hillel

The Cohen Illini Hillel Center for Jewsih Life is shown in October 2019 on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign.

CHAMPAIGN — Illini Hillel, the foundation for Jewish life on the University of Illinois campus, is kicking off its 100th year with a new fundraising goal.

This Sunday, Hillel is beginning the public phase of its “Centennial Campaign,” a fundraising initiative with a $10 million goal aimed at sustaining its services long into the future.

The celebration will start with a bagel brunch, held at 11:30 a.m. Sunday with several elected officials, including Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen, Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, and Savoy Village President John Brown.

The Hillel on campus, established in 1923, is the oldest in the nation. Rabbi Benjamin Frankel and a group of Jewish students started meeting formally in downtown Champaign, seeking balance in their dual Jewish and American identities.

The idea of a safe space for college-age Jewish students quickly spread to nearby campuses, including those at the University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan, at a time when many college organizations let only Sunday-worshippers gain membership.

Today, Hillel exists at 850 campuses across the world.

So far, the UI campus foundation has raised $3.5 million in the “quiet phase” of its Centennial Campaign, which began June 2021, Illini Hillel Director Erez Cohen said.

“We respond to the needs of Jewish students, and their needs haven’t changed much in some sense,” Cohen said. “They’re looking for a social outlet, cultural programming, religious celebrations, and they’re looking for a place to be their true Jewish selves unapologetically, where they don’t need to explain ‘who I am.’”

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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