Conn College welcomes center for Jewish students

New London - At the soft opening of Connecticut College's new Zachs Hillel House Tuesday afternoon, Jerry Fischer recalled the story of half the building's namesake.

Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, spoke briefly as a shivering crowd of more than 100 waited to go inside: A man approached two rabbis, claiming that if one could teach him the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot, he would convert.

The first sent the man away. The second, Hillel, met his challenge handily, reciting the golden rule and calling the rest of the Torah's teachings commentary.

Fischer summed this wisdom up more succinctly.

"If you wanna be a Jew, don't be a jerk," he told the crowd.

The other half of the building's name belongs to Henry Zachs, an entrepreneur and philanthropist responsible for two other Hillel houses in the state - one at Trinity College and the other at the University of Connecticut. At Tuesday's ribbon-cutting, Zachs said he has plans for another at the University of Hartford.

It was at Trinity College's Hillel that some Connecticut College students first approached Zachs several years ago about the possibility of establishing a permanent place on campus for Jewish students to congregate.

Zachs and his family donated $1 million for its construction three years ago. Since then, said senior Spencer Francus, co-president of the college's Hillel Board, there has been an upswing in activity among the campus' Jewish community - nearly 200 students, or about 10 percent of the student body.

In years past, Shabbat dinners drew a crowd of 20 at the most. This year, Francus said there have been dinners with as many as 50 in attendance. And at every bagel brunch, he said, all the lox was gone "within half an hour."

Though Hillel has been active in some capacity here for more than 25 years, it was only in borrowed spaces - high holiday services in the campus chapel, Hanukkah and Purim celebrations in the dining hall, Shabbat dinners in the vegetarian dining hall.

Now, the Jewish community, which also welcomes students at the Coast Guard Academy, will have a 6,700-square-foot place to call their own on the north end of campus with a conference room, library, study space, recreation area and kosher kitchen.

"This is a moment that I've been dreaming about for 30 years," Fischer said.

A formal dedication of the Zachs Hillel House will take place in May, and while the Hillel Board completes a search for a director and recruits student staff, the hours will be 1 to 5 p.m. for the first few weeks.

a.isaacs@theday.com

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