When I arrived in Athens, Ohio, in 2002 to become rabbi and executive director of Ohio Hillel, I encountered a building in disrepair. From the outside, it was charming. But once inside, the charm slipped away. Small rooms bumped against each other. Dark paneling lined every wall. The fluorescent lights flickered and the plumbing never worked.
I learned that it had been purchased outright in 1966. To begin my tenure without a mortgage was an incredible gift, I knew, but the building was also a mess. One of the first tasks was to raise money to open the space and add skylights and create a Hillel that was in keeping with a new generation. We focused only on the first floor. We ripped out a staircase and discovered a fireplace. Athens is funny that way. The buildings are old, and they’ve been covered up and layered upon and then uncovered countless times. Hillel’s big brick building on 21 Mill St. was no exception.
We didn’t bother to raise the funds for the second or third floors. We knew enough then that a large, open first floor would be enough for regular student and community traffic for the next several decades. And besides, the second floor – my office, another office, a restroom, and then another large room – were, and still are, used sporadically. The consistent trend in the Hillel world is that if you spend too much time in your office, or your building, you’re not doing your job. There are people to meet. Students to teach. Donors to inspire. And thus, the first floor was where our money and vision went. We imagined then, a decade ago, that the most important experiences would happen on the first floor. Closest to the ark, the kosher kitchen, and the rows of prayer books.
But now, in 2014, the un-renovated second floor has gone to work in the most interesting and gratifying way possible.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 16, historic buildings on Union Street in Athens caught fire. Several cherished local businesses and a series of student apartments were destroyed. Three Jewish students and their three friends were among those displaced. The six students had shared a big apartment with a balcony overlooking Union Street. It was a great location – close to campus and close to the bars. A perfect combination for senior year.
Now these students are living on the second floor of Hillel. On Tuesday, we rearranged bookshelves and couches. AEPi boys schlepped mattresses upstairs. We cleared cobwebs and fitted six beds with donated sheets and pillows and blankets. Within a few hours, a second-floor hodgepodge of a space became a cozy bedroom for displaced Ohio University Bobcats.
The three Jewish students, together, have a an impressive resume that’s indicative of successful Hillel and federation engagement: one Cleveland Onward alumna, two Taglit Birthrighters, two Jewish Federation of Cleveland interns, three Hillel interns at different points in their college careers. Don’t forget BBYO alumnae, Jewish camp alumnae, Jewish National Fund alternative break alumnae. The list of their collective Jewish experiences is long and robust. Of course we wanted them in our building after learning of their loss.
I ask: What did you lose in the fire?
Risa Michelle Katz lost her violin. Sammi Broad lost her baby blanket. Tia Kropko’s hard drive was burned with all her photos of her Onward Israel experience. These are just some of the irreplaceable items.
On the morning of the fire, one of the Jewish students said: I have nothing. Nothing to go towards. Nothing to return home to.
As Hillel rabbis, our jobs are both to listen and to act. We could watch the six students disperse onto campus, into residence halls or hotel rooms. They would have been separated, since there was no residence hall large enough to house the six of them together. We knew it was best for them to experience their trauma and tragedy as a unit, first as a way first to mourn, and then ultimately, to heal.
Hillel’s around the globe struggle to do everything well – inspire, advocate, support, educate, train. This month, our most important job at Ohio University Hillel is to be a home for students in need. I’m glad we never raised money or vision for that second floor. It’s a messy space. Perfect for a four-week slumber party.
And when all the conversation about what Hillel should and shouldn’t do, and how open or closed we should be, or where we need to stand on Israel, at the end of the day, we’re nothing if not a home for all Jewish students and their friends. We’re nothing if we can’t open our doors in crisis and say: This is yours. All of this is yours. We bought it for you. We built it for you. Here’s the key. Now make it so.
Rabbi Danielle Leshaw is the executive director of Hillel at Ohio University. Follow her on twitter @RabbiDanielle