Blond wood, airy and light-filled rooms, new and gleaming appliances. After more than a year of construction at Berkeley Hillel, students at UC Berkeley and others who use the facility are finally getting a Hillel house designed to meet their need for a place to gather and celebrate.
“It will truly be a Jewish student center on campus in a way I don’t think has ever existed,” said Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director at Berkeley Hillel since 2009.
Hillel hosted a grand re-opening on Dec. 2 to celebrate the center’s upgraded look, which includes new common spaces and offices, as well as structural retrofitting.
The building on upper Bancroft Way was due for an update, Naftalin-Kelman pointed out, after years of hard student use and deferred maintenance. “Little things,” he said, “like our Wi-Fi didn’t work so well.”
Last remodeled in 1989, the building didn’t really meet the needs of the current student body: the kitchen was too small and the chapel was dark. “It just wasn’t comfortable,” Naftalin-Kelman said.
Although the remodel took a while, the business of Berkeley Hillel — socializing, learning and supporting Jewish life — carried on and students kept showing up.
The new building is spacious and light, but it also had to be built to last. Naftalin-Kelman made that point clear when carpet samples arrived. “I took my coffee and I literally poured it on the rug,” he said. “If we can’t wash it, we need a different rug,” he told the designers.
The renovation of the 16,000-square-foot building was enabled by a $10 million fundraising effort, with the bulk of the money coming from alumni, foundations and naming rights to areas in and around the property.
Among the donors were Gerson Bakar (who died in June 2017) and his wife, Barbara, who gave a significant amount and will have their names on the auditorium and dining room. In addition, a “housewarming registry” was set up, allowing smaller-level donors to support the remodel with a lesser gifts — spoons, or other kitchen utensils, or a lounge chair, for example.
Naftalin-Kelman said the fundraising hasn’t been difficult, as donors are happy to contribute to making a welcoming and useful Jewish space on campus, one that can last for years and serve as both a spiritual and physical home base for students.
“It’s not just any building,” he said.