UWM Hillel expansion will benefit the community

As The Chronicle reported on April 20, plans are moving forward for a new home for the Hillel Foundation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to be located on a portion of the existing parking lot behind the Zelazo Center, which fronts on Kenwood Boulevard.

Hillel student participants, staff and board members are, of course, delighted with this progress, but the project promises many benefits to the Milwaukee Jewish community and to the broader community as well.

The Hillel expansion was one of several major projects wrapped together in the Jewish Community Capital Campaign that began in 2004 and will come to conclusion at the end of June 2007, having raised more than $43 million.

As we’ve witnessed the amazing progress on the Karl Community Campus and at the Helfaer Community Service Building, Hillel is proud that we have been a part of this extraordinary achievement, which demonstrates the power of the emotional, intellectual and spiritual ties that bring us together as one community.

We are also extremely grateful to the donors whose generosity and vision have made all of this possible, and to Judy Guten and Steve Chernof, co-chairs of the Community Capital Campaign Steering Committee.

Our Hillel project originated with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s recognition of the importance of Jewish support and Jewish identity for students as they leave home and move through their college years.

The transition from high school to college is not without challenges, and, for students who take advantage of Hillel programming, that transition is made easier by the Jewish ambiance, activities, Shabbat dinners and worship services that Hillel offers.

It is crucial that our Jewish students continue to experience the nurturing presence of the religious community that has embraced them all their lives. The religious rituals, supportive peer group and welcoming environment of Hillel make a real difference in the lives of hundreds of university students every year.

The Hillel project began with an exhaustive search for an appropriate location that would allow for program expansion and offer proximity to campus and convenience for students.

The purchase of two adjacent houses on Kenwood Boulevard appeared at first to be a solution. But neighbors opposed the proposed razing of the homes, and our intent from the beginning has been that Hillel be an enhancement to its UWM neighborhood.

With the support and leadership of Alderman Michael D’Amato, we were able to enter into negotiations with the University to purchase the portion of the Zelazo parking lot.

During February and March of this year, we worked hard to develop, maintain and enhance our relationships with our neighbors. Our planning process for the Zelazo site was transparent, helped along by the public nature of the University’s approval process.

For our part, we held a series of meetings with individuals to listen to and address their concerns. On March 15, we scheduled a group meeting for those whom we had not met with individually. We contacted more than a dozen neighbors, by telephone and through door-to-door canvassing, and many expressed strong support for the project.

Although only one person attended that meeting, we are committed to continuing a vigorous program of neighborhood outreach. Hillel is proud to be part of our UWM neighborhood, and we look forward to maintaining these essential neighbor relationships.

At this point, the sale of the Zelazo parcel has been approved by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, and the state department of administration building commission has also approved.

We are now working with the City of Milwaukee on a few final details. The architects are beginning their planning process, and we look forward to developing a building whose design will meet the needs of university students and, at the same time, be respectful of the surrounding neighborhood.

The new building will enable Hillel to continue the important work of supporting university students and helping them to maintain Jewish roots and identity during their college years.

It will benefit the University by providing crucial services to students of faith, which will in turn help them recruit and retain Jewish students. It will benefit the neighborhood by ensuring the continued presence of an organization committed to being a great neighbor. It will benefit the Milwaukee Jewish community by building a strong bridge between the Jewish and university constituencies.

The journey to identify a location for Hillel at UWM and plan the building has had great help and support along the way. We are especially grateful to the leadership of the Community Capital Campaign, to Frederick R. Croen for his leadership of the project thus far, and to Betty Lieberman of the federation for facilitating the building and development process. We look forward to breaking ground on a beautiful new home for Hillel at UWM.

Jane Gellman is president, John Mann is president-elect and Heidi Rattner is executive director of Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee.