Erez Cohen's comments to the Champaign City Council
May 9 2023
Mayor Feinen, dear council members, and dear leaders of our Jewish community,
Six years ago I had the honor and privilege of standing before you and sharing information about Hillel’s founder, Rabbi Benjamin Frankel.
At the time I opened by saying how proud I am to be a member of the Champaign community. That pride only grew in recent years as our city faced both local and global challenges. Your leadership never wavered through the pandemic and the rising tide of partisanship.
On behalf of the entire Jewish community, thank you for the proclamation made today by Mayor Feinen.
As expressions of antisemitism grow across the country, we are comforted to know that Champaign remains a warm and welcoming city to all its residents.
One such resident was Professor Abram Sachar. He moved to Champaign in 1923 upon finishing his PHd from Cambridge, England in history. He arrived to Champaign in time to partake in a historic moment that would change the University of Illinois and Jewish life on campuses across the world.
In 1923, Rabbi Benjamin Frankel was working to fund and establish Hillel, a campus organization aimed at providing Jewish students, and their peers, with social, cultural and religious programming that they could not receive anywhere else.
The newly arrived Sachar, loved the idea of Hillel and connected with Rabbi Frankel immediately. Their immediate bond turned into a partnership as Frankel led the religious aspects of Hillel, while Sachar offered Jewish history and liturgy courses through the University of Illinois. The became close friends and ended up being roommates for some time until Rabbi Frankel got married.
Frankel died an early and unexpected death due to complications from pneumonia in 1928. Sachar continued to support Hillel from the outside for another year and then became the Third director of Hillel at the University of Illinois. He continued to expand the program locally and the movement of Hillels growing on campuses around the country.
He was appointed national director of Hillel in 1933 and kept the title and the headquarters of Hillel in Champaign until 1946. During those years Sachar expanded the Hillel movement from 9 host universities to 167 campuses around the US, making Champaign the center from which the light of Jewish life on campus emanated.
Sachar was known to be a warm and supportive Hillel director. I still hear today from children of his students, that he kept in touch with thousands of them after he retired. Additionally, Sachar used his time after retirement to continue the work of making higher education accessible to Jewish students. As a second career he became the founding president of Brandeis University. After fighting for years against ivy league schools that placed quotas against Jewish students and general ignorance on other campuses, Sachar called Brandeis University “a host at last”. It was to be a place where any student can be themselves.
Sachar brought much pride to Champaign-Urbana during and after his time here. There is no question that the social entrepreneurial spirit of Champaign made his work at Brandeis possible. Today, 100 years after the establishment of the first Hillel in the world, right here in Champaign, we are asking you to commemorate Professor Sachar’s work by giving an honorary street name on Fifth Street between John and Daniel street.
This request has been supported by our neighbors at the McKinley foundation across the street, as well as the Sachar family that is joining us tonight on the live feed. This includes Abram’s son David, who was born in Champaign in the 1940.
Thank you very for your time and consideration. Thank you for your leadership.