History of Jewish Life at Yale

While there have been Jewish students, faculty and administrators at Yale since the 1800s, it was not until September 10, 1995 that there was a single campus location where one might experience the living rhythms of Jewish culture. On that date, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale was dedicated and opened its doors as a permanent home for all expressions of Jewish Life – in a context that is utterly and undeniably woven into the fabric of the University.

The vision of a center for Jewish life at Yale dates back to the 1960’s when, with the collapse of restrictive quotas, the numbers of Jewish students and faculty at Yale increased dramatically. Responding to an identified need, Rabbi Richard J. Israel and the Yale Hillel Board of Trustees launched a campaign that purchased two buildings on High Street: one to house the Hillel Rabbi and his family and the other to provide a home for Yale Hillel.

Yale Hillel’s program offices, however, never left the dormitory basements of the Old Campus, while the basement of the Rabbi’s house became Young Israel House at Yale: a kosher dining room for students. In 1973, the “Kosher Kitchen” moved to a larger basement around the corner on Crown Street. Even as Jewish Life at Yale emanated from three separate locations on campus, Yale Hillel and Young Israel House collaborated more extensively and Jewish religious and cultural life began to coalesce. By the mid 1980’s, Friday night dinners at Crown Street had become a large weekly event attracting hundreds of students to taste the food and conviviality of Shabbat.

Academic life, however, lagged behind community life. Biblical Hebrew was reintroduced at Yale College in 1967, just one hundred years after its mandatory instruction had ceased. However, the Yale curriculum presented Judaism as an ancient precursor rather than as a living civilization.

In 1981, Rabbi James Ponet ’68 returned to Yale from Israel to lead Yale Hillel, a tenure that lasted 32 years. Rabbi Ponet formed a close partnership with Professor Donald J. Cohen, MD ‘66, the Director of the Yale Child Study Center, and for the next decade and a half they led the effort that brought Joseph Slifka Center into being. The Center was made possible by the generosity of many donors, led by Alan B. Slifka ’51; the creativity and persistence of Robin Golden, ’79, who directed the campaign for the construction of the Center; the talent and dedication of Marci Sternheim, Slifka Center’s founding Executive Director; and by the wholehearted support of Yale University, which provided the Center its location in the center of campus.
Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale opened in 1995, and has since been a meeting ground for people of varied religious, ethnic and cultural heritage to encounter one another, and to celebrate, study, embrace, and collaboratively create the diversity of Jewish tradition.