History of Jewish Life at Yale

While there have been Jewish students, faculty and administrators at Yale since the 1800s, it was not until September 10, 1995 that there was a single campus location where one might experience the living rhythms of Jewish culture. On that date, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale was dedicated and opened its doors as a permanent home for all expressions of Jewish Life – in a context that is utterly and undeniably woven into the fabric of the University.

The vision of a center for Jewish life at Yale dates back to the 1960’s when, with the collapse of restrictive quotas, the numbers of Jewish students and faculty at Yale increased dramatically. Responding to an identified need, Rabbi Richard J. Israel and the Yale Hillel Board of Trustees launched a campaign that purchased two buildings on High Street: one to house the Hillel Rabbi and his family and the other to provide a home for Yale Hillel.

Yale Hillel’s program offices, however, never left the dormitory basements of the Old Campus, while the basement of the Rabbi’s house became Young Israel House at Yale: a kosher dining room for students. In 1973, the “Kosher Kitchen” moved to a larger basement around the corner on Crown Street. Even as Jewish Life at Yale emanated from three separate locations on campus, Yale Hillel and Young Israel House collaborated more extensively and Jewish religious and cultural life began to coalesce. By the mid 1980’s, Friday night dinners at Crown Street had become a large weekly event attracting hundreds of students to taste the food and conviviality of Shabbat.

Academic life, however, lagged behind community life. Biblical Hebrew was reintroduced at Yale College in 1967, just one hundred years after its mandatory instruction had ceased. However, the Yale curriculum presented Judaism as an ancient precursor rather than as a living civilization. In 1981, with the leadership of figures like Professor William Hallo, Professor Geoffrey Hartman, and William Horowitz ’29, Yale established a Program in Judaic Studies. University President A. Bartlett Giamatti declared the new program Yale’s restoration of “the third pillar upon which the edifice of Western Civilization stands.” For Yale’s Jewish community, the inauguration of the Program in Judaic Studies marked an important affirmation of the intellectual, cultural and religious whole of Jewish Life at Yale – but the community still lacked a physical center.

Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale was the product of an historic collaboration between dedicated Jewish alumni and their alma mater, and since 1995 has provided a home for the far-reaching community of students, teachers, alumni and friends who come together to share the fruits of Jewish life. It is a meeting ground for people of varied religious, ethnic and cultural heritage to encounter one another, and to celebrate, study, embrace and explore the richly nuanced manifestations of Jewish tradition.