A Good Place To Be Jewish

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Michigan State University has revitalized Jewish life on campus.

Hundreds of students gather at the MSU Hillel House for a Shabbat dinner.
Hundreds of students gather at the MSU Hillel House for a Shabbat dinner.

More and more Jewish high school seniors are choosing to go to Michigan State University than ever before. For the last 10 years or so, there’s been a renaissance of Jewish life on campus, the result of a number of factors, mainly the university’s evolving Jewish Studies program, a revitalized Hillel House and local Jewish donors and philanthropists who have stepped up to support the university.

This weekend, MSU is celebrating its partnership with the Detroit Jewish community at a brunch at MSU president Lou Anna Simon’s residence, followed by a private tour of the Eli and Edthye Broad Art Museum. Eli Broad, who graduated in 1954, donated $26 million for the construction of the contemporary art museum that opened in November. He is only one example of local Jewish philanthropists too numerous to name, among them Ed Levy, whose endowment has allowed hundreds of students to study in Israel, and Michael and Elaine Serling, whose long-term involvement with the university and many generous gifts have created the Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Chair in Israel Studies, filled by professor Yael Aronoff, and the Serling Visiting Israeli Scholars Program.

Elaine and Michael Serling
Elaine and Michael Serling

“There’s no way to underestimate Michael’s influence,” says Steve Weiland, former MSU Jewish Studies Program (JSP) director and board member. “In the long run, Michael has shaped so much. Yes, he’s a good philanthropist, but he is also a good leader. He has an unending abundance of spirit and drive that helped us keep moving ahead.”

The Serlings’ involvement began about 17 years ago, when they sponsored an event for visiting Israelis from Detroit’s sister region in Israel’s Central Galilee. At the reception, they met Weiland, who asked them to get involved and create a relationship between the JSP and the Detroit Jewish community. That began his ambassadorship of MSU, the enhancement of its Jewish Studies program and the increasing number of Jewish students.

Jewish life at MSU has become much more vibrant in the past 15 years, Serling says. That wasn’t always the case. There were some years when Jewish life at MSU was rather hard to find.

MSU History Lesson
MSU was founded in 1855, the first land grant college in the United States under the Morrill Act. It was called Michigan Agricultural College at its onset, changing its name to Michigan State College in 1925, and Michigan State University in 1955.

The land grant philosophy meant education would be offered to the masses and not just to those with wealth. And, under the leadership of its longest-serving president, John Hannah, the school grew from 16,000 to 34,000 from the 1940s-1965. The percentage of Jewish students also increased dramatically during that time frame.

“When I went to MSU from 1962 to 1966, this land grant philosophy was still very much evident,” Serling said. “It helped me to thrive as a student, as part of my experience was learning about the broader society than the Jewish ghetto I had been raised in. It helped me prepare for the real world, which is hardly a Jewish world. At the same time, I was still able to keep my Jewish roots by joining a Jewish fraternity.”

The first Jewish fraternity at MSU was Alpha Epsilon Pi, started in 1934. Zeta Beta Tau fraternity came in the late 1940s, followed by Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity in 1959. The 1960s were the golden age for Jewish Greek life at MSU, as many of the other Greek houses on campus excluded Jewish students.

“Going back to the ’40s and ’50s, many East Coast Jewish students looking for an affordable education came to MSU, many from New York,” said Serling, who joined the “Sammys” (Sigma Alpha Mu) in 1962, and enjoyed his 50th reunion in 2012. “There were 30 Jewish kids in my pledge class and only four or five were from Detroit. The rest were from New York and the East Coast.”

Jeffrey Leib, a member of the Jewish Studies advisory board, graduated from MSU in 1964.

Fraternity brothers Bob Britton, Michael Serling and Ron Barron, still friends after 50 years.
Fraternity brothers Bob Britton, Michael Serling and Ron Barron, still friends after 50 years.

“It was great,” he says. “I never felt any discrimination, although I learned there were kids on campus who had never met a Jew before. One guy from Escanaba was raised to believe that Jews had horns.”

Leib, a lawyer from West Bloomfield, where he lives with his wife, Bryna, says Jewish life at MSU today is far more robust.

“Hillel is more active and vibrant, a real staple of Jewish life on campus. It wasn’t so cool when I was there, and I didn’t go too often.”

Don Rudick, who sits on the Hillel Board, graduated business school at MSU in 1970, and was a member of the AEPi, a 100 percent Jewish fraternity.

“At that time, during the Vietnam War and amid social unrest, fraternities were on a downward spiral, although we had a vibrant chapter,” Rudick says. “Students were not so involved with Hillel then, which was run by a rabbi.”

Rudick, finance director for Hanson’s Windows and Siding, still is active with the MSU AEPi chapter, which has about 80 members who have the opportunity to go to educational seminars and national conventions. “The fraternity’s goal is to develop Jewish leaders and lifelong friendships.”

The number of out-of-state students at MSU died off through the 1970s-’80s as it became more economical to study closer to home. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Jewish enrollment again began to increase.

More Jewish Students
It’s been an evolution, Serling says, citing many factors that combined to increase the number of Jewish students enrolling at MSU. A main reason, he says, is the rising academic standards. GPAs are up dramatically at MSU over the last 10-15 years. The average freshman is coming in with a GPA of 3.4 or 3.5. “That increase has ratcheted up respectability in the eyes of Jewish families,” Serling says.

Second, he says, as the University of Michigan takes more and more out-of-state students, it’s increasingly difficult for local students to get in. “That combination means more Jewish kids want to go to MSU.”

Perhaps most important, however, in this resurgence of Jewish students is a solid Jewish Studies Program, the most Israel study-abroad programs in the country and a new Hillel House that features hundreds of student-driven Jewish programs every year.

Leib has been on the JSP advisory board since its founding, working with Serling toward promoting MSU as a place to go for Jewish students.

“At the time, our perception was the number of Jewish kids going to MSU had diminished,” he says. “They were going to U-M, Wayne. There weren’t the same numbers as when we had been there.”

Thankfully, then-president Peter McPherson was a firm believer that the more Jews on campus improved the university on many levels.

“We had support in creating a Jewish Studies Program focused more on contemporary Jewish life and our study-abroad programs,” Leib says.

MSU has given financial support in many ways, including funding three core positions in Hebrew language, American Jewish history and Jewish religious studies. McPherson and Simon helped lead the fundraising effort for the beautiful new MSU Hillel House, now in its 13th year.

Today there are approximately 3,000 Jewish students at MSU. Much of the growth is the result of the great partnership between MSU and the Jewish community in Michigan. More than $6 million has been raised by the Jewish community for the Jewish Studies program alone.

Jewish Studies Program
Back in the mid-1990s, Steve Weiland was approached to further develop the fledgling JSP at the university. “Because of the organizational experience I had,” Weiland says, “not because of my Hebrew.”

Ken Waltzer
Ken Waltzer

He and Ken Waltzer, current JSP director, developed a plan together.

“The reality was that in the early-1990s, there were no Hebrew classes, no lectures, no events related to Jewish life. There was very little related to Israel,” Waltzer says.

So he and Weiland decided on four basic subjects essential to the program: Hebrew, American Jewish history, religious studies and Israel.

“The key step was bringing Hebrew into the curriculum in the mid-’90s with help from Federation, which funded a part-time instructor,” says Weiland, who ran the program until 2005, and currently teaches higher education at MSU. “Also key was support from the university administration.”

With that support, they were able to hire four people who worked half-time in Jewish Studies and half in their main departments.

“We were having speakers, concerts, movies, lectures, anything we could think of to bring people together,” Weiland adds. “The Jewish Studies Program became the congregation of many Jewish faculty members on campus.”

Waltzer says that over the last 20 years, they’ve been able to develop a full Jewish Studies Program “with a menu for students to choose from as a minor. This year, anthropology professor Chen Bram is our Israeli fellow, and he’ll be teaching about Jewish/Muslim relations,” he says. “There are a lot of opportunities for students to study in Israel, a lot of scholarships. We have a very active yiddishkeit, a lot related to modern Israel — lectures, film, etc.”

Study In Israel
MSU is the national leader in study abroad programs, including study abroad in Israel.

Weiland sums it up: “Because of Michael’s support and Ken’s ingenuity, we’ve become national leaders in providing study in Israel opportunities for our students. Through the ups and downs, Ken has stuck with it.”

Yael Aronoff, second from let, middle row, and students in Israel this summer
Yael Aronoff, second from let, middle row, and students in Israel this summer

The most hands-on, in-depth study of Israel offered by the JSP is the MSU Jewish Studies Summer Program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which offers students the chance to earn college credit while living and studying in Jerusalem. The program is designed for students interested in learning firsthand about the history, politics, society, religions and culture of Israel.

There’s also a spring semester program for students to continue making progress in their academic programs while studying Israeli culture and history. In addition, there is a Junior Year Abroad program and a Green Israel program, which studies environmental challenges, such as water scarcity, in the Jewish state.

Professor Yael Aronoff, the chair in Israeli Studies, just got back from taking 20 students on the summer program. It was her third time taking students to Israel. While there, students take two classes (eight credits) at Hebrew University: Politics and Society, and History of Modern Israel. During the politics course, students had to simulate an Israeli election and form a coalition government.

“It was a fantastic experience,” Aronoff says. “We also went to think tanks and NGOS, the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, academic conferences, including panels on the Pillar of Defense and discussions on counter-terrorism.”

While in Israel, students went north to study security-related issues, such as the Iron Dome, rockets and bomb shelters. They also went to Kibbutz Ein Hashloshah and to Sderot, both on the border with Gaza. Sderot has been hit most heavily by Palestinian rockets.

Yael Aronoff
Yael Aronoff

This time, Aronoff had a few U-M students on the trip. “U-M is not running a study-abroad program because they are concerned about risk,” she says.

Much of this study abroad is made possible by Julie and Ed Levy Jr. scholarships for student leaders studying in Israel. Levy, a longtime Detroiter and philanthropist, created an endowment that is approaching $1 million to help students realize their dreams of studying in Israel. MSU supports more students with scholarships to study in Israel than any other university in the country.

In addition to studying in Israel, MSU students also can study Israel at home through a myriad of programs and courses.

“MSU is ahead of the game in Israel studies,” Aronoff says. “It was only the sixth school in the country to create a chair of Israel studies position. There is also so much programming — speakers, the Michael and Elaine Serling Lecture on Modern Israel, the MSU Israeli Film Festival, the Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman Collection of Israeli Literature and, almost every week, there is an Israeli program open to the community.

“The intellectual environment is fantastic, and the Jewish Studies Program contributes greatly to campus life.”

A Reinvigorated Hillel
When Cindy Hughey, director of the Lester and Jewell Morris Hillel Jewish Student Center, was hired in 2000, she enjoyed commitment and support in building a new Hillel House from Detroit Federation, the Prentis Morris Family Support Foundation and community leaders, especially the late David Bittker, a longtime leader at Hillel.

Bittker, although a U-M alum, was so proud to help, she says. “He believed in the ‘neon-light effect,’ as he called it,” she says. “If we build it, they will come.”

Hundreds of students attend MSU Hillel's Sparty Bar Mitzvah
Hundreds of students attend MSU Hillel’s Sparty Bar Mitzvah

Bittker became the driving force behind the new facility, chairing the committee that raised $3 million to make it a reality.

“David made things happen,” says his wife, Arline, of West Bloomfield. “When he got an idea, he acted on it. He wanted to re-create Indiana University’s remarkable Hillel House at Michigan State. By surrounding himself with a lot of good people, he managed to get things accomplished. He had an enormous amount of energy.”

Another person instrumental in bringing the new house to fruition was Patti Phillips, now a MSU Hillel board member and co-chair of its annual auction. She gave the lead gift to the house that is named for her parents.

“Before my father passed away unexpectedly, he had told me he wanted to make a donation to Hillel House,” says Phillips, who lives in West Bloomfield with her husband, Rick. “A few months later, I was at a Federation event with the MSU president, and it was suggested it be named for my parents, so I gave the lead gift.”

She, her husband and their two daughters are all MSU alumni. “I’m really proud of the way Hillel has grown,” she says. “It truly is the center for Jewish life on campus. Every Jew can find a place there. It’s a beautiful building.”

Hughey agrees that the house really became the driving force behind the revitalization of Jewish life at MSU. At the beautiful new facility, students can enjoy services, Shabbat dinners, programming or simply find a place to study or visit with friends.

Cindy Hughey
Cindy Hughey

“Students see it as their place,” says Jonathon Koenigsberg, Hillel associate director and director of development. “We’ve now in our 13th year. Students flock to it; it has put MSU on the map for Jewish students.”

Koenigsberg was a student at MSU in the late 1990s, during the waning days of the old building. “I hate to say it, but it was a dump. Not a place people wanted to hang out.”

Hughey, who graduated MSU in 1976, says she never attended the Hillel. “I didn’t even know it was there. There wasn’t an active, vibrant Jewish community on campus at that time,” she says.

Now she leads a robust Hillel, surrounded by an incredible staff with a budget that has increased six or seven fold over the past 13 years. She and her staff also run HCAM — Hillel Campus Alliance of Michigan — for students at nine campuses that don’t have a Hillel House. For those students, MSU Hillel is their mother ship.

“We offer two Birthright trips a year, giving 120 students the chance to go to Israel. We have more than 200 student-driven programs over the course of the year,” she says. “It’s like the campus JCC, not just a synagogue. We have sports, social programs, Israel advocacy — so many ways to connect with being Jewish.”

Indeed, you can expect to see 300 Jewish students at Hillel on Friday night Shabbat dinner and 500-800 Jewish students at events like the annual Sparty’s Bar Mitzvah. Other programs include the Israel Campus Advocacy Training Initiative and Destination Detroit, a service learning program for students to work with Detroit youth and learn about the city.

“If you are Jewish at MSU, we will find you,” she says, “and make you feel at home.” 

By Jackie Headapohl, Managing Editor

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MSU’s most famous Jewish athlete

Abe EilowitzAbe Eliowitz played football at MSU from 1931-32. He was a co-captain and All-American on the 1932 team. He received the first MVP (Governor of Michigan) award ever given by Michigan State, and the Spartans finished with a record of 5-3-1. He was also on the MSU baseball team.

“My dad was a remarkable athlete,” says Linda Gorback, a Temple Israel member from West Bloomfield. “He primarily played fullback and halfback, but he was also the punter and played quarterback on occasion, too.”

Eliowitz went on to a remarkable five-season career in the Canadian Football League, where he played with the Ottawa Rough Riders and Montreal Alouettes. He was an All Star five times as a running back and as a flying wing. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1969.

After playing in Canada, he was a physical education teacher in the Detroit school system and continued to coach football, winning city league championships at Denby and Cooley high schools. He was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. 

 

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