Duke University Alumni Magazine


Festival of lights: the Freeman Center sponsored Hanukkah menorah lightings on campus at the Perk
Photo: Les Todd

A new building that bridges traditions and history encourages Jewish students to become more visible and to enrich the campus culture.

t is a crisp December evening, a Tuesday, and the parking lot at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life is full. On the information desk just inside the door, six candles burn in a small menorah. The clink of forks on plates can be heard from the kosher dining room, and several students are sunk deep into chairs and couches in the lounge, studying. As pews fill in the sanctuary, a small, neat woman sits alone in the front row--Holocaust survivor Faye Schulman, waiting patiently to begin her scheduled talk on escaping a Nazi massacre to join a partisan brigade in Russia.

Schulman's talk is based on her book, A Partisan's Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust (Second Story Press, 1995). Using old family photographs and photographs she took herself, she tells of life in Lenin, the small town on the border of Poland and Russia where she grew up. Then she tells of the Nazi occupation of that town, and its subsequent removal from the face of the Earth: Lenin's Jews were shot in three trenches, and its Christians were herded into barracks and burned alive. Schulman lived only because, as a photographer, she was selected by a Nazi officer to work for the Germans, and she was able to escape to a partisan brigade in the Belorussian forests. For nearly four years, she lived with this brigade, fighting the Germans, hiding her Jewish identity, and photographing at every opportunity. It is a moving and powerful story.

Another story is being told this evening--by the audience, the event, and the evening itself. They illustrate the success of the young Freeman Center in reaching out to a diverse community, Jews and non-Jews, Duke and non-Duke, to provide education, religion, and comfort. In doing so, the center itself helps to tell the story of Jewish life at Duke today.

When the 17,000-square-foot Freeman Center for Jewish Life officially opened its doors in August, director Roger Kaplan welcomed a large group of students and community members gathered for the facility's first Shabbat services. But the FCJL had its genesis in 1986, when founding donor Gilbert D. Scharf '70 went to then-president Keith Brodie with a proposal. "He had a vision for Jewish life at Duke--simply to enhance Jewish life at Duke and to do so by having a facility that would be worthy of the ever-growing Jewish presence on the campus," says Judith Ruderman, university vice provost and a member of the FCJL board of directors involved with the project from its inception.

Building boon: the 17,000-square-foot facility on Campus Drive opened officially in August
Photo: Les Todd

Scharf's vision took time to realize. A site was chosen, architectural plans drawn up, and fund raising begun. But then, Ruderman says, difficulties arose on several levels. The land was difficult to build on, eventually necessitating a change of site and a change of architects. Initial fund-raising efforts didn't meet expectations. And most problematically, philosophical differences arose among those involved in the project.

The first was what Ruderman calls "the great miqvah debate"--impassioned feelings on all sides about including a ritual bath in the building design, a feature that would be used primarily by more traditional Jews for cleansing rites, including immersion after menstruation. "I was interested in the idea of having a miqvah because the notion was to be more inclusive rather than less," Ruderman says. "It's an ancient, ancient ritual to go to the miqvah--it's the predecessor of baptism. But for some modern feminists, or less observant Jews, it often has the offensive connotation that women are dirty." In the book Living Judaism (Harper SanFrancisco, 1995), Rabbi Wayne Dosick notes that the interpretation of the miqvah is not that the bather is unclean, but that he or she is undergoing a symbolic rebirth after some kind of loss. Yet the idea was fraught with enough symbolism and emotion that it might have imperiled the project. "It was an interesting time," Ruderman says. Eventually the debate subsided and the miqvah was included. "Even those who were against it have made their peace with it."

A second, equally contentious discussion ensued over whether the new center would be affiliated with Hillel, the traditional Jewish campus organization. For most of the building process, the board of Duke Hillel, a chapter of International Hillel, existed alongside the center board. "We had these two parallel organizations, which was confusing and in some ways counterproductive," Ruderman says. But by now Nannerl O. Keohane was Duke's president, and Ruderman gives her credit for helping to broker a compromise. "She basically said, you have to have both. You have to have an independent center that is also connected to Hillel. Somehow, you work it out. This took two years to work out, but eventually, the Hillel camp and the CJL camp wanted it to work so badly that they just persisted, and kept working, and kept hammering out compromises." In the end, the Freeman Center for Jewish Life is not itself a Hillel center, but is officially "an affiliate of Hillel."

As each problem moved toward resolution, fund raising picked up, with several major donors and hundreds of others joining in. By the end of 1997, the center was under construction and a search for the director was under way. That search yielded Roger Kaplan, a professor of Hebrew who had taught at Duke from 1989 to 1992 and who had extensive experience in Israel.

"As one of my colleagues said to me, 'Not too bad--you go abroad and they build you a building and you come back to it,'" Kaplan says. "And in some ways, this is old news already. The building's open. What I want to start focusing on is what we're doing with the building."

Kaplan is articulate and energetic, clearly focused on his mission. "The biggest thing I always go back to is that it's a centerÉforÉ JewishÉlife," he says, pausing between words for emphasis. "The name was not taken to be a center for Orthodox Judaism, it wasn't supposed to be a Jewish student center, or anything like that. It's supposed to represent Jewish life. And Jewish life is very positive. It's living. It encompasses everything."

"Everything" means religious life and secular life, social events and cultural events, Duke and Durham. Program coordinator Helena Lawrence, who compiles the event calendar, reels off only a partial list of FCJL offerings: "We have religious, which would be Shabbat, the high holidays. We'll have social, which is the Matzoh Ball or a Greek mixer. We'll have cultural, which could be a Shabbat program where they learn how to make challah, make candles, or a Havdalah program to end Shabbat, making spice boxes and candles. There's educational, which could be Holocaust speakers, classes in Bible study, Talmud study, Jewish ethics."

"Our philosophy here is very certainly that we don't want to tell Jews or students how to be Jewish, what is the correct way to be Jewish, but rather to give them the tools and resources to express their Judaism," Kaplan says, adding, "I say that always with the footnote that as long as it's nothing that is too radical, too fascist, or harmful to other people." Whether this means helping an Orthodox or other observant student negotiate the tricky balance between religious and academic obligations, providing kosher food in the cafeteria, or simply hosting events for groups from the breadth of the political spectrum, Kaplan and his staff are committed to outreach and education.

The Freeman Center also gives Duke's Jewish students the opportunity to change their culture, to become more visible and to participate more. Before the center opened, Kaplan says, "students didn't have a lot of resources available to them. They didn't have a lot of space. They didn't have a place that they could call home, that they could hang out in."

Until this year, Hillel had an office in the Chapel basement and a small mill house on Alexander Drive. Senior Victoria Wigodzky was on the Hillel board and held a work-study job at the Hillel office. "It was just kind of weird. It didn't seem like a Jewish place," she says. "We'd get prospective students that would come with their parents, and they would be sent down there, and they'd be like, 'What is this?'" And, she says, the physical circumstances made programming more difficult in terms of both logistics and participation. "It was just extra work, because you have to look for a place to have it, and get permission. And getting people involved when they don't really see anything--it was hard."

While some students have fond memories of the closeness that their tiny facilities engendered, most were looking forward to using the FCJL as a place to gather for all kinds of activities. Sarah Bell, a junior who was recently elected president of the FCJL student board, has been active with Hillel during her Duke career. She says, "It's symbolic. We're no longer in the last room in the back of the Chapel basement. Now we're in our own building, finally somewhere where everyone can come and be together."

"My freshman year, at Passover, I volunteered to go and help. There were three of us trying to get this meal together--we had one oven, a couple of pots," recalls Michelle Pinsky, a senior. "The past three years, we had high holiday services at Gross Chem. At Yom Kippur, we had services in a room where I'd had a calculus class. Having an actual sanctuary is just wonderful. In Gross Chem, you would look at the Periodic Table. But in the sanctuary, you look at the Ark and the Torah."

As a college generation comes through and the FCJL becomes a common part of the Duke experience, however, Kaplan expects a major change in the student culture. "When I was here nine, ten years ago, I don't even know if there was much in terms of, say, a community Passover seder. Services were very small, and I used to welcome students into my home because they didn't feel like they had anywhere to go. Last year, Duke Hillel had 200 people at its seder. This year I anticipate if we did this right, we could have four or five hundred. We had 400 people for Rosh Hashanah, 500 for Yom Kippur. Clearly there is now a community, and the Freeman Center is inheriting a legacy of providing for the needs of the students."

Programming, whether student- or staff-generated, will play a large part in providing for those needs. And as programs are planned, says political science graduate student Renan Levine, a balance must be maintained. "The students have to organize things. They have to feel responsible for their events. Rather than having the professional staff say, 'This is what we think should happen, this is what should be going on,' simply asking, 'What would you like?' And providing that. It's the consumer model; if a consumer wants to watch Dawson's Creek in the lounge, or make challah in the dorm, they should."

Kaplan agrees that student participation in planning is a key challenge. "That's been a big factor. We're learning how we can initiate programs and yet provide student ownership. We have to do programs they're motivated about, so that they feel, 'This is our program.'"

The line between providing programming and helping students initiate it is not the only one the center must walk to succeed. Levine, whose perspective on the center comes from growing up with a father who was a Hillel rabbi, argues that the balancing act will extend to different kinds of programs appreciated by various parts of the Jewish community. "If you want to be able to meet everyone's needs, it often means the least common denominator, which may not satisfy everyone," he says. "The best example is high holiday services. A lot of people come in with high expectations and are dissatisfied, because it's not home. You have to take a lot of people's different homes and mush them together into one religious environment. The best you can do is try to have a balance, something for everyone."

Aiming at empowerment and inclusion, Kaplan has outlined certain goals for the center, including a parliamentary board that moves away from the current undergraduate model. "I would like to see student organizations that represent different interests," he explains. "One might be an Israeli interest, one might be a community-service interest, one might be a religious interest, one might be social programming, one might be musical; these are all independent groups, and they then select representatives to serve on a government. And that government is more a coalition of those various things." Such a coalition would include representatives of the graduate students and professional students as well. "The idea is that we as a Jewish population on campus would be united and we would all talk about any resources we have, sharing them all. Just like with GPSC [the Graduate and Professional Student Council], there's somebody to say, 'We have a program that we need to do and we'd like to submit this for funding.'"

This is not Kaplan's only hope for the FCJL. "My five-year goal is that we will be a well-known facility here in the community and on campus; that people will understand our identity, what we are, who we are, that we are part of Duke but yet we serve the community," he says. "This was built to serve the students of Duke's campus. But, having said that, there is no reason it can't serve the community in many ways. If we can provide programming space, we can provide a lecture because we have the money or we happen to have the staff to put it together--there's no reason we can't do that. And all our programs are open to everybody."

That openness extends not only to the non-Duke Jewish community, but to the non-Jewish Duke community. Sarah Bell has been working on programming to bring other cultural and religious groups together. A black-Jewish forum she helped coordinate in early December drew around fifty participants, she says, helping to show that the FCJL's doors are open. "We're just trying to bring people into the building and really broaden the scope of not just us as Jews, but us as part of the Duke community--and that includes the blacks and the Asians and all of the other minority groups. People self-segregate, and there's really no reason for that. You start off with person-to-person contact, and it perpetuates itself from there."

This is the kind of initiative and leadership that Kaplan wants the FCJL to inspire and foster. "A responsibility of any director of any Jewish center on any campus--and I think this is part of what Duke's mission is, too--is to prepare our students to be future leaders. Just as much as we're giving them business degrees and law degrees and pre-med degrees so they can go out there and become the great scientists and the great lawyers, my hope is that they will also discern a commitment and a responsibility to the Jewish community and become leaders in their Jewish communities. That even if they live in a small community or a big community, they have something to give, something to do."

"Small community" has been a concern for Duke's Jews. While Jewish enrollment runs between 15 and 20 percent--not an unsizable population--the feeling of a Jewish presence on campus has not always been proportionate with the numbers. While junior Elana Erdstein plans to go on to rabbinical school, she came to Duke from a strong Jewish community in Detroit precisely because she "didn't want to be in a place that was too Jewish." Of Duke's Jewish population, she says, she "expected that a good number of those would be very secular students, which is true. I knew that would pose a kind of challenge that I hadn't had growing up, and that appealed to me, to have a contrast to what I was used to."

"Religion--for anyone--isn't playing a huge part on campus," says Michelle Pinsky. "People here aren't activists." Pinsky grew up in an active Jewish community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, "and everyone I knew was Jewish. It was a big part of their life. Coming here, a lot of people are from big Jewish areas, but you could really not tell that they were Jewish."

Victoria Wigodzky says she was in search of a smaller Jewish community when she came to Duke from Marietta, Georgia, where she had been the only Jewish student in her high school. "Duke just felt right. I never looked for a Jewish community that was already established, I looked for something that I could feel comfortable in. I've felt like I've been able to help shape Jewish life here."

The fairly low visibility of Duke's Jewish population, these students say, might have contributed to an ignorance of Jewish custom. "I have met people here who, before meeting me, had never met a Jew before," says Elana Erdstein, echoing a tale common to several other students. "That surprised me, because before meeting them, I had never met someone who had never met a Jew before." Says Pinsky, "There are cultural differences, cultural confusion. Like Dining Services, at Rosh Hashanah, would put out matzoh. And of course we only have that at Passover." No matter which Jewish holiday, she laughs, "matzoh, all the time."

Historically, that lack of knowledge has been largely seen in such small, daily matters as questions about kosher food or not understanding religious observances. University-sponsored programs have been scheduled on Jewish holy days, for instance. But there have been larger misunderstandings as well. In 1991, The Chronicle accepted a full-page advertisement denying the reality of the Holocaust, igniting passions and distress throughout the Triangle Jewish community. And last year, Jewish faculty protested the gift of Bibles at the baccalaureate service; that gesture, they argued, worked against Duke's stated goals of diversity and inclusion by focusing on the Protestant tradition to the exclusion of students of any other belief. While the Bibles are given out now before the service rather than as part of it, the issue is still being discussed among faculty and administrators.

While misunderstandings, large and small, do occur, Kaplan says anti-Semitism is not a part of life at Duke. "We often, as Jews, forget that there's a big difference between anti-Semitism and ignorance. A big difference. Anti-Semitism is swastikas. Anti-Semitism is Jews should not be on campus, or Jews are all rich and they shouldn't be getting financial aid. When parents call and ask me, 'I'm sending my nice Jewish student from a well-known, established, significantly Jewish population,' whether it be St. Louis or Chicago or New York, 'to a small town, to North Carolina, to a Methodist university,' I say to them in all honesty, I believe we have more homophobia on this campus than anti-Semitism. Is there anti-Semitism on this campus? How can you say that when this building has been built?" The building's very existence, he notes, shows an attitude on the part of the university that Jews will be both welcome and safe here.

Now that building can contribute to an atmosphere of education and engagement. Together with the Judaic Studies program, with its undergraduate and doctoral tracks, endowed chairs, and the longstanding Duke in Israel summer program, both Jewish students and their non-Jewish classmates will have a resource for building a stronger Duke community. By being integrated into the university, Kaplan says, "we integrate Jewish life, we educate people about Jewish life, we educate them about the importance of the religion and the culture and the history."

After just one semester, that integration is already taking place "We are now averaging in the thirties every night in people for dinner," he says. "If you look at our programming calendar, it's full. Our classes are full. The university is turning out for events. We had a U.N. program sponsored by International House. The gay and lesbian center did a lecture on anti-Semitism and homophobia. We have a sorority dance, we've had University Development here, we've had the admissions office here, we had the Campus Club here. We've had President Keohane here for lunch, we've had Jewish Federation talks, we've had a fund-raiser for hunger. We're constantly growing and changing."

As doors open at the Freeman Center, they also open for the university as a whole. "When I was here before," Kaplan says of his 1989-92 tenure, "I remember a parent asking me, 'Would you send your child to this campus?' And I said to her, 'I'll give you an honest answer. If you want a place where your daughter is going to get one of the best educations you can get, yes, I would. If you want your daughter to be in a thriving, growing, enriching Jewish community, where she's going to be really part of the Jewish community, no. No.'

"Now, that was nine years ago. Today, I won't say that. I say to them, 'I can't offer you what Cornell offers,'" he says, citing that Ivy as one of several schools known for a strong Jewish population. "But what I can offer you is a growing opportunity, a place where we're ready for new leadership. When you go to Brandeis, you might be one of a hundred people showing up for a club, and you're a freshman. Do you have a chance for leadership? No. Here? Absolutely. You show up and you say, 'I want to organize a Jewish ritual exploration,' or a Jewish feminist group, and we give you the resources. We help you do it. At Cornell, you'll be a spoke in the wheel. Here, you can build the wheel. You can leave Duke in four years, and instead of saying, 'Look what I participated in,' you can say, 'Look what I created.'"

In one sense, the Freeman Center has already been created, as its brick and stone walls went up to house the many aspects of Jewish life. But in another sense, it will always be under construction, as students and community members continually come together to define their needs and then work to meet them. That ongoing growth is part of Kaplan's vision for the FCJL's future.

"I'm hoping you will be able to come into this building virtually every evening and find a flurry of activity. Whether it be classes or lectures or discussions or just people eating, that you would be able to come in here and find something happening," he says. "I hope that includes community people in Durham and the student community, Jewish and non-Jewish. I hope this is a place where on any given night, you might see Students for Change in the Middle East having a discussion along with a fraternity having a meeting; that our cafeteria will be serving fifty to eighty students, at least, at dinner; that there will be a real sense of a community center, like the Bryan Center--maybe not the numbers and the traffic, but the sense that there is always something going on in here. That people might even stop by just to see what is happening."

On that fifth night of Hanukkah, after Faye Schulman's presentation on her life with the Russian partisans, people linger in the lobby to chat. One student hurries down the hallway toward a computer cluster where a friend is working; a few more amble down toward the lounge to see who's around. The dinner crowd has cleared out. The candles in the menorah have nearly burned down to the brass. But their light still shines, just illuminating the face of the work-study student at the reception desk, and things at the FCJL are happening indeed.


Photos: Les Todd

Chapel Hill architect Richard Gurlitz, who designed the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, brought both local experience and a strong sense of Jewish custom to the work. After the center opened, he discussed in a public presentation the evolution of the project. From the beginning, he said he knew both history and current use would have to play a role in the design.

"We're putting together some of the ideas that are central to Judaism," he says, showing a slide of a sketch of the First Tabernacle. "Really, the very first thought of a building, anything that was other than a tent, in Judaism, was a tabernacle. This is probably the roots of any kind of Jewish architecture--and the root of that Jewish architecture really had a lot to do with community."

Gurlitz explains that the tabernacle was used not only as a religious site, but also as a gathering point for its community for secular purposes. "There was a constant relationship between community and religion, religion and community--it was very strong. So that is something we tried to think of as a starting point. We're going to have this community building on Duke's campus--what are some of the first thoughts that we have about this? Clearly, that it is a means for community activity."

The needs of community and religion dictated both form and function. "A building that is going to be used like this has some meaning inherent just in the way it looks," he says. "So we started the discussion and we just went through what looked Jewish--what had all the functions and forms and shapes."

To begin with, he designed the building along a north-south axis, "so there is a division of east to west. The idea of eastern being religious and western being secular is certainly something in our culture today that is a very common observation. Religion seems to emanate from the East, and that separates the building, draws a spine."

East of that spine are the "spaces which need to face east, for ritual meaning," including the sanctuary, a multipurpose room that would also be used for services, the library, and a balcony to be used for the sukkah (a temporary outdoor structure built for Sukkot, the harvest festival). "Everything on the western side is all intended for secular use," he says, indicating offices, classrooms, and kitchen. The center space is meant to be open community space, including the student lounge and a large dining area.

Those functions had been largely dictated by the center's planners, Gurlitz says. Once the functions had been determined, however, "this turned into giving us the freedom to do what we wanted to do." That freedom was translated into the aesthetics of the design.

"A big part of the Jewish experience is the Egyptian experience. These are the three pyramids of Giza, which you can see very clearly in these plans of the administration area and sanctuary," he says, turning to a slide of an exterior drawing and pointing out the rooftop peaks. Such pyramids "are a strong image throughout Judaism and throughout the centuries."

Gurlitz describes the incorporation of other symbolic elements throughout the design. In the multipurpose room, twelve small square windows run along the eastern wall in reference to the gathering of the twelve tribes. In the library, five windows honor the five books of Moses. Two windows in the area of the miqvah, or ritual bath, are "very detailed, yin and yang, to show the duality that the miqvah represents."

Even such simple elements as stairs and ceilings echo important aspects of Jewish history. Massive stairs leading to the entrance of Solomon's temple were the inspiration for the steps leading to the building from Campus Drive. An outdoor balcony is taken from an old engraving of David's porch, and the sanctuary ceiling is painted a rich blue that signifies twilight, the time when religious observations begin. Even a minor detail, a wall along the front of the building, is an arbor, "meant to have grapes growing on it," he says. "The idea is that the fruit of the vine is really another very potent image--the Sabbath, the glass of wine."

As Gurlitz shows the last of the sketches depicting the various areas of the center, he turns back to his audience. "That takes care of the many sides of Judaism," he says. "They're not all spiritual." But the very recognition of that fact reinforces his agenda for the building's design--that in its inclusion of every aspect of Jewish community life, the Freeman Center would indeed be a gathering place for Duke's various tribes.

"I cannot tell you how much I love this building," says Judith Ruderman, assistant vice provost and FCJL board member. "When I go into that building, and I look out of every window, there's a vista. It's beautifully sited, it's functional, I find it warm yet elegant, people like to be in there. I think it's some of the best space on campus."

--Kim Koster

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