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Illini Hillel Centennial Blog #2: Rabbi Benjamin Frankel began a global movement at Illini Hillel

By Ezra Shelato

A portrait of Rabbi Benjamin Frankel (z''l)

In 1923, Rabbi Benjamin M. Frankel (z''l) established the first Hillel at the University of Illinois. His stated hopes for the foundation were “to give the Jewish student at the University an opportunity for continued education along Jewish cultural and religious lines, and to develop that talent necessary for future lay leadership.” A week after Hillel formally opened, Judge Harry M. Fisher of the circuit court of Cook county spoke at Sinai Temple. He said of the Hillel foundation, “If there is need for it, there should be one in every university in the United States, and if there is no need, there should be none here. I am already convinced of its need.”

Rabbi Benjamin Frankel, founder of Illini Hillel and the Hillel movement

Over the course of the next four years, four new Hillel foundations would be established in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and California. Life at Illini Hillel was continuously active from the very beginning. Students put on talent shows and plays, lecturers came to speak, essay contests were held. In 1925, the first annual student drive was organized to raise money for a Hillel foundation scholarship fund for students in need of financial assistance. In that same year the first inter-Hillel debate took place between the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin. It all happened because of Rabbi Benjamin M. Frankel’s decision to create the first Hillel.

Rabbi Frankel died of heart complications at the age of 30 in 1927, only four years after establishing the first Hillel. At the memorial service, his friend Dr. Louis L. Mann said “the young [R]abbi had lived a full life, for in Hillel foundation he had established the germ of a great institution in future American Judaism, one which is now in its infancy and is destined to grow and thrive in universities throughout the country.”

Rabbi Ben Frankel founded the organization that Jewish college students needed most. In the past one hundred years, over eight hundred Hillels have begun to operate across the United States, where students are able to continue their education along Jewish cultural and religious lines and to develop their talents. Exactly as Rabbi Frankel had hoped.

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