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Illini Hillel Centennial Blog #6: Reminiscing with Illini Hillel Alumni

By Ezra Shelato

A big thank you to Dawn Weiner-Kaplow, Rabbi Irwin Keller, and Sara Lynn Newberger. When they sat down to reminisce about their shared time at Illini Hillel, they were kind enough to record the meeting for use here on the Centennial Blog. They had a good long chat, so expect to hear more from them here in the coming weeks as they reflect on Jewish student life at Illini Hillel in the late 1970s.

Dawn: We were at the University of Illinois overlapping for a couple of years?

Irwin: The three of us only overlapped ‘78-’79.

Dawn: Just that one year? Irwin: Just that one year. But then all three of us were in Israel the next year and spent a lot of time together in Jerusalem.

Dawn: That’s right, our U of I connection continued. As it does to this day.

Irwin: Sara Lynn, you were involved in the Egalitarian Minyan.

Sara Lynn: No, I don’t think there was an Egalitarian Minyan then. This was the late 70’s. Mostly I davenned in the Orthodox Minyan, both for Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning. And then on some occasions, I think we did a whole women’s minyan, but I can’t remember for sure. That was pretty exciting. And it was very much in a wave of what was going on at the time with women’s participation in davening. I also spent a lot of time at Hillel because I ate there a few times a week, certainly on Shabbat, and often during the week as well. I enjoyed the cooking very much, and also the camaraderie of people who were sitting around the table. It was a chance to hang out in the basement and eat together and sing together sometimes on Shabbat.

Irwin: I remember that basement and I remember those meals. I would come to Shabbat dinner sometimes. And it was exciting for me, because I didn't grow up in an Orthodox or observing community. I grew up in a committed but reform practice. And so being around the tische, and eating and singing and benching was something that I had only done at Reform summer camp, but it wasn't something that I had done sort of in the course of what a normal Friday night might be.

Dawn: And my background is just like Irwin's, having grown up in a committed Jewish family in the Reform movement. Going to summer camp is where it came alive for me. But for you [Sara Lynn], that was a regular weekly thing in your life. I also went to an occasional Shabbat dinner at Hillel, but never during the week. It wasn't because of Kashrut, it was for community. We had a really large number of participants in the late 70s that came to Hillel.

Be sure to check out the Centennial Blog each week for more stories, including more from Dawn, Rabbi Irwin, and Sara Lynn!

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