Photos: Ronnie Booze
A large crowd gathered in stately Palmer Hall on the Rhodes College campus to celebrate the official launch of Hillel at Rhodes College. All facets of Memphis were represented; college students, academics, clergy, Memphis Jewish Federation donors and lay leaders, and Jewish community members.
“It was a remarkable show of support from such a wide variety of people,” said Jewish Community Partners (JCP) President and CEO Laura Linder, referring to members of the broader Memphis community attending in support of fellow students, neighbors and colleagues. “Especially moving was interacting with Jewish alumni. Several mentioned how proud they were that the college now has a Jewish student population of nearly 70 students.”
The presentations kept the audience educated and entertained. Michael Greenberg, JCP chair served as master of ceremonies. Rhodes College chaplain Reverend Lucy Webb offered a beautiful and truly ecumenical prayer. Wendy Rotter, a Rhodes alum, former member of the Rhodes administration, current parent, and newly appointed chair of the Rhodes Hillel Advisory Council, recognized the newly formed council, which will offer support and guidance to the Hillel director.
Rhodes College President Dr. Marjorie Hass said that it was a privilege to serve the college during Hillel’s first year. “Some might say it’s coincidence, I might say beshert –fated – for my inaugural year to coincide with the beginning of our Hillel,” she said. “Hillel is important in my life, personally. My parents met at the University of Illinois Hillel, and my husband and I regularly attended services there, years later, when we were graduate students.
“As Rhodes’ first Jewish president, when they said to me ‘we’re bringing this organization, perhaps you’ve heard of it’, I was able to say ‘Yes, I know all about it.’”
Memphis and event attendees welcomed keynote speaker, Hillel International President and CEO Eric Fingerhut. “It’s been a privilege meeting the warm Memphis Jewish community, whose generosity and leadership provides for Hillel at Rhodes and also at the University of Memphis,” he said. “I can only tell you how it warmed my heart to see the building at the University, that’s been there for so many years and cared for with such love.”
He thanked longtime supporter Harry Samuels and U of M Hillel Advisory Chair Hal Fogelman for their leadership. “And to the students, faculty, and leadership here at Rhodes, thank you for welcoming Hillel, for joining our missions together,” he continued before leading the crowd in reciting the Shehecheyanu.
“The Hillel reception brought me to tears upon walking into the room and seeing all of the Jewish community members of Memphis who wanted to help and support Rhodes College,” said Sydnie Schindler, a junior from Dallas majoring in psychology, with a minor in Spanish. “In all my years at Rhodes, I never found myself surrounded by more than 10 Jews at a time. Hearing the Shehecheyanu ringing from the walls inside Rhodes College was so beautiful. I am truly blessed and honored to be a part of this community that cares so much about the Jewish students on campus.”
Rabbi Jeremy Simons, director of Hillels of Memphis, offered a symbolic gift to Rhodes College. Revealing a shining silver menorah, he placed it on the podium and said, “This Chanukiah is meant to be lit and displayed publicly. Historically, that hasn’t always been easy for Jews to do. We give this knowing it has a place on this campus and that generations of students, of all faiths and of no faiths, will gather proudly by its light far into the future.”
“There’s more than one way to fund a Hillel,” he continued. “In Memphis, ours are funded by Memphis Jewish Federation. I may be biased but I think our way is best. Our Hillels are not just isolated islands populated with mysterious millennials. Our Hillels belong to all of us. And we, as Jewish Memphis, recognize we are responsible for them.”
After the ceremony, the energized crowd was in no rush to leave. Small groups gathered to share their favorite bits. Old friends posed for photos and embraced, new friends shook hands and exchanged cell numbers.
“Several people said how wonderful it was to come out for something that benefits the entire Memphis Jewish community as opposed to it being an event of a particular denomination, school or agency,” said JCP’s Director of Community Impact Bluma Zuckerbrot-Finkelstein. “Everyone really felt a strong communal feeling.”