History of Jewish Life at Yale
Organized Jewish life at Yale began in 1913, when the Yale chapter of the Menorah Society (a chapter of the Intercollegiate Menorah Association) was founded. Other short-lived Jewish societies existed at Yale in the same era. Jewish fraternities Pi Lambda Phi and Sigma Alpha Mu arose by 1917. Others followed.
When Reverend Sidney Lovett became Chaplain at Yale in 1932, the University began to take a special interest in providing counselling for Jewish students, and, under Reverend Lovett’s sponsorship, formal Jewish religious support for Jewish students became institutionalized.
By 1934 a “Jewish Club” existed on campus under the auspices of the Yale Chaplain’s Office.
The “Kohut Forum” replaced the Jewish Club in 1936.The Kohut Forum had university sponsorship from the first Jewish Chaplain at Yale: Rabbi Maurice Zigmond, who was simultaneously a graduate student in Anthropology at Yale.
Hillel at Yale was established by B’nai B’rith in July 1941.
While there have been Jewish students, faculty and administrators at Yale since the 1800s and Hebrew had been a requirement of study for all students since the University’s founding, the growing Hillel movement took root and really began to flourish at Yale under the leadership of Rabbi Richard Israel whose tenure began in 1960.
Alongside Hillel, the “Kosher Kitchen” was originally founded in 1959 off-campus on Dixwell Avenue as the “Young Israel Diners’ Club”, organized and run by students, and supported by Rabbi Israel and by Rabbi Aaron Gelman of the New Haven Young Israel synagogue. Carl Posy was the first Yale undergraduate to purchase a full meal contract at the kitchen, which moved into the Hotel Taft in 1964. When the “Friends of Yale Hillel” purchased the 35 High Street home for the Hillel rabbi, the Kosher Kitchen was established in its basement.
With the collapse of restrictive (official or unofficial) admissions quotas, the numbers of Jewish students and faculty at Yale increased dramatically. While the kosher kitchen moved to High Street, Yale Hillel’s program offices, however, never left the dormitory basements of the Old Campus.
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.
The Hillel Children’s School (1967-2015) was operated in various Yale buildings and later took up residence at the Slifka Center, playing an important role in the New Haven Jewish community, including for the children of Yale faculty and staff, and the many undergraduates and graduate students who taught there over the years.
In 1981, Rabbi James Ponet ’68 returned to Yale from Israel to lead Yale Hillel, a tenure that lasted 32 years. Rabbi Ponet formed a close partnership with Professor Donald J. Cohen, MD ‘66, the Director of the Yale Child Study Center, and for the next decade and a half they led the effort that brought Joseph Slifka Center into being. Elana Ponet was very much a partner in building up the Yale Jewish community in her own right, including her tenure running the Hillel Children’s School from 1993-2015.
Many people played critical roles in making the Slifka Center a reality. In particular, Alan Slifka ‘51, Dr. Donald Cohen MD ‘66, and Rabbi Herbert Friedman ‘38 (all of blessed memory) led the way along with Yale President Benno Schmidt. The philanthropic leadership of Dan ‘51 and Joanna Rose, Steve Susman, Howard M. Holtzmann, Sylvia Slifka, David and Goldie Blanksteen, Barbara Slifka, and others helped turn dreams into reality.
Staff members also played key roles in the successful building of the Center. Under the leadership of Rabbi Ponet, the creativity and persistence of Robin Golden ’79, directed the campaign for the construction of the Center and the talent and dedication of Marci Sternheim, Slifka Center’s founding Executive Director saw the project through. We also remember Amy Aaland, the Center’s legendary Executive Director from X-2007. We are also grateful to Hal Roth and Bill Moore – the Center’s visionary architects – for making this project a labor of love that has well stood the test of time.
As you can see, Slifka Center is the product of a collaboration between between generations of Yale College students, Yale alumni, the New Haven Jewish community, and Yale University under the leadership of three supportive presidents, A. Bartlett Giamati, Benno Schmidt, and Richard Levin.
September 10, 1995 – the day of Slifka Center’s dedication ceremony – still stands in the memories of many of those who were there as a watershed moment for Jewish life at Yale. This was a “coming of age” for the Jewish community at Yale, which until that point had been relegated to basements with limited infrastructure. Yale Hillel and the Kosher Kitchen now had a home (together) in the heart of the campus that both serves the needs of Jewish students and engages the entire Yale community to learn more about Jewish life and to see the strong value proposition a vibrant Jewish community brings to Yale and the world.
For a detailed history of Jews at Yale, we refer to you to Professor Dan Oren’s 2001 book on the topic called “Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale”.
History of our Building
Located at 80 Wall Street, across from Silliman College and sitting adjacent to the home of the University Chaplain and the backyard of the Judaic Studies Program, Joseph Slifka Center is a nexus for Jewish Life on the Yale Campus.
The award-winning structure, designed by the distinguished New Haven firm of Roth & Moore Architects, reflects the purpose as well as the aspirations of the Jewish community at Yale. Passing through the double oak doors of Stern Entrance Hall, one steps into an open, light-filled space designed to welcome all who enter. The comfortable seating in Susman Hall (known to recent generations as “the purple couch room”) is an informal but elegant first-floor living room for conversation, socializing, receptions and intimate talks by the fireplace. Walking out to the Cullman Courtyard, one can sit, take in the sun or the stars, or dine under the dramatic redwood sukkah.
On the lower level, wrapping around a sunken garden courtyard shaded by a white flowering pear tree, Heyman Commons offers delicious meals prepared in the Lindenbaum Kosher Kitchen. (When upwards of 400 hungry people show up for one of Slifka’s famous Bagel Brunches, they spread throughout the building with paper plates, bagels, and all the fixings, including 80 lbs. of lox!)
On the second floor, Sylvia Slifka Chapel serves many purposes: a holy space, a yoga and krav maga studio, a concert and lecture hall, a theatre, a cinematheque, an occasional private dining room, a reception area, and for many years the site of Sunday morning services conducted by Yale students for the Hillel Children’s School (1967 – 2015). Artists are encouraged to explore their Jewish voice and display their work in the Allan and Leah Rabinowitz Gallery. Rounding out the second floor, the Beit Midrash is the site of daily prayer and traditional study, while the Hillel Program Office is the nerve center of student planning, organizing, and creativity.
The third floor Zucker Reading Room and Friedman Library houses a Judaica collection and serves as a (often) quiet area for contemplation, research, writing and study.
Special thanks to Professor Dan Oren and Rabbi Jim Ponet for their assistance compiling this history!
Directors of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at Yale/ Joseph Slifka Center:
|1933-34||Rabbi Isaac Rabinowitz|
|1935-43||Rabbi Maurice Zigmond|
|1944-45||Rabbi Meyer Greenberg|
|1945-49||Rabbi Samuel Sandmel|
|1949-54||Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner|
|1955-57||Rabbi Ephraim Fischoff|
|1957-59||Rabbi Maurice Zigmond
David Schimmel, Director of Student Activities
|1959-71||Rabbi Richard Israel|
|1971-72||Ms. Susi Wugmeister|
|1972-80||Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf|
|1981||Rabbi Bernard Och|
|1981-2013||Rabbi James Ponet, Inaugural Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain and Founding leader of Slifka Center|
|2013-2017||Rabbi Leah Cohen, Executive Director|
|2017-2018||Peggy Gries Wager, Interim Executive Director|
|2018-present||Uriel Cohen, Executive Director
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale
Friends of Yale Hillel/Slifka Center Board Presidents (in alphabetical order)
Professor William Horowitz ‘29, Founding President
Evan Farber, Current President
Professor Sidney Altman
Professor Robert (Bo) Burt
Professor Donald Cohen
Professor Robert Cover
Professor Martin Gordon
Professor Edward Kamens
Professor Ruth King
Dr. Maxwell Lear
Professor Bernard Lytton
Professor Dan Oren
Professor George Silver
David Slifka, Immediate Past President
Slifka Center Founders
Herbert L. Abrons
Arnold J. and Lucille Alderman
Robert and Louise Arias
Charles B. Benenson
Robert Bildner and Elisa Spungen Bildner
Goldie and David Blanksteen
The Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation
Charles F. Bronfman
Scott B. Cantor and Lisa E. Stone
Joe Capasso Enterprises
In Memory of Henry N. Cohn
Joseph and Joan Cullman
Peter and Julie Cummings
The Dimeo Companies
Leon and David Doret, in Memory of Rose Doret
The Allan and Arthur D. Emil Families
Iris and David Fischer
Gary and Linda Friedlaender
Rabbi Herbert A. and Francine Friedman
Jonathan M. Friedman
Michael and Carole Friedman
Jerrold P. Fuchs
Dr. Michael and Edith Gelfand
In Honor of Robin S. Golden
The Merle and Marshall Goldman Family
In Memory of Sylvia Greenwold
Bob, Peggy and Donald Gries
In Memory of Robert Hays Gries
Andrew and Ellen Hauptman
Ellen Bronfman Hauptman
Samuel and Ronnie Heyman
The Family of Harold E. Hoffman
Howard M. Holtzmann
In Honor of Miriam and William Horowitz
Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven
The Karetsky Family
Jonathan D. Katz and Susan Lustman Katz
Drs. Robert and Ruth King
Arthur J. and Sara Jo Kobacker
Bertha and Jack Konowitz
David and Eve Kotkin
Belda and Marcel Lindenbaum
The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation
Sivia and Jeffrey Loria
Marlene and Sandy Louchheim
In Memory of David Henry Marks
Jack, Martha, Lori and Stephen Matloff
Sandy and Katy Mayerson
David and Harriet Mazer
Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Philanthropic Fund
David Messer and Barbara Duberstein
In Memory of Eugene Meyer III
Jerome Meyer and Roslyn Milstein Meyer
Rebecca and Nathan Milikowsky
The Paul and Irma Milstein Family
Andrew and Iris Morse
Enid and Lester Morse
Family of Monroe and Florence Nash
Zachary, Jonathan and David Paris & Nancy Cowen
Richard and Kayla Pechter
In Memory of Milton Petrie
Suzanne and Lionel Pincus
William and Lia Poorvu
Allan and Leah Rabinowitz
The Riesman Family
I. Budd and Ruth Rockower
Daniel and Joanna S. Rose & Family
Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation
Frederick P. and Sandra Rose & Family
Edward H. and Evelyn B. Rosen
James J. and Laura Ross
In Memory of Mark Rothko
The Kern Family, in Memory of Aaron H. Rubenfeld
The Russell Shapiro Family
Harry and Carol Saal & Family
Edmond J. Safra
In Memory of Ruth G. Schapiro
Richard and Nancy Schneller
In Memory of Melvin L. Schottenstein
Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation
In Memory of Arthur L. Shapiro
William and Adrianne Silver
Alan and Virginia Slifka
Sylvia Slifka, in Memory of Joseph Slifka
Emily Fine and Stephen Stein
Jeffrey and Susan Stern
Michael and Peter Stern
In Memory of Harry and Helene Susman
Stephen and Karen Susman
Peter and Dale Wang
Craig and Marla Wasserman
Sam Weintraub, Jr.
Robert F. and Patricia Ross Weis
Lois & David Weltman and Family
Moshe and Libby Werthan
In Memory of John Clyde White, III
The Yenkin, Krakoff, Levinson, & Levit Families
In Honor of Ariel and Benjamin Gantz Zahler
Morton H. and Audrey E. Zalutsky
Barbara and Benjamin Zucker
Lotty and Charles Zucker
Donald and Barbara Zucker
Eugene and Sandra Zwillinger