From Dream To Reality: The Hebrew Union College’s Dormitory
By Kevin Proffitt
In May 1915, three years after the opening of the Clifton campus of Hebrew Union College (HUC), the students of HUC issued a public appeal for an on-campus dormitory. “It is a pity,” they wrote, “that there seems to be no immediate prospects for a College dormitory, for there can be no doubt that there is a real need for one. At present the boys are scattered all over the city…The boarding houses are steadily and unmistakably deteriorating. It is getting harder and harder to get a good boarding house…The situation is unsatisfactory, and the only possible solution of the problem is to have the boarding of the students done on a large scale.”
Their appeal continued, “the student body is small; it is very congenial; it would not tend to divide itself into cliques; a college dormitory would make one happy family…The College would become more and more the center of all student life, as it should be. Perhaps, then, this wish of the student body will come true one of these days, and the next time we see a fine building being erected near the College buildings, let us hope it will not turn out to be a Masonic Temple or a Good Samaritan Hospital, but in truth the Hebrew Union College dormitory.”
The need was real. In 1916 a newly formed Department of Hygiene at HUC recommended a dormitory “for the sake of student health.” The grounds of the new campus contained ample space for such a building. The problem, as always, was funding. By 1921, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) became involved in discussions for the building of an on-campus dorm. In a report to the 27th council (now known as Biennial) of the UAHC, that year’s presiding officer, Frederic A. Ullman of Buffalo, N.Y., stated that “in connection with the subject of a dormitory, I am happy to report that we have received an offer of help from a most welcome source – The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods.” Ullman then went on to say that Hattie Wiesenfeld (referred to as Mrs. Joseph), “the diligent president of that indefatigable body of workers,” told him that it was “appropriate” to have “the mothers in Israel provide the proper home surroundings for the young men who devote themselves to the study of the Torah.”
In typical fashion, NFTS immediately took action to raise $250,000 to construct an on-campus dormitory. They began a national fundraising campaign that was dazzling in its efficiency and organization. Replete with pamphlets, flyers, and mass mail solicitations for donations, NFTS sought support from coast to coast. One of the circulars sent out by NFTS was a tri-fold appeal titled, “The Need for a Dormitory at the Hebrew Union College.” Among many reasons listed, this brochure proclaimed that due to the lack of an appropriate home, “the young men of the College have been driven to all sorts of expedients, detrimental to their health, discouraging to their work and the source of great annoyance in the conduct of an institution of learning.”
Another pamphlet, “The Four Steps in the Dormitory Campaign,” had the sub-title, “You Are Going to Succeed.” The four steps – Organization, Publicity, Getting the Money, and When to Start – were carefully outlined and accompanied with specific tips for local sisterhoods on launching successful fundraising campaigns. One of these included the interesting suggestion to ‘Serve tea every day,’ in conjunction with public gatherings to drum up support.
The level of planning for this campaign was extraordinary particularly for a modest sized organization such as NFTS. Honor rolls of donors, report cards for pledges, and direct mail campaigns were distributed almost weekly. Monthly postcards that had, on one side, a proposed drawing of the new dormitory together with updates (in bold lettering) of the amount of money raised to date, with the words “What Have You Done To Build This Monument to the Jewish Women of America” on the other side, were just one of the creative, and effective, methods used by NFTS. One particular poster created for the campaign was similar to, and obviously based upon, appeals for support issued during World War I. “Don’t Hold Up the Dormitory Building!” it proclaimed, accompanied by a drawing of a construction worker operating a crane, standing in front of a half-completed building.
As we know now, the efforts of NFTS were successful. It raised nearly $280,000 ($30,000 more than their goal). Ground was broken in December 1922 and, less than four years after Frederic Ullman’s charge to NFTS, the dedication ceremony for the Hebrew Union College Dormitory was held on January 17, 1925. Though the keynote speaker at this ceremony was not a woman (as was common in those days) Carrie Simon, the chair of the Committee on the Dormitory Fund, and Stella Freiberg, president of NFTS, did speak. Mrs. Simon beautifully summed up the work of the women of NFTS, then and throughout their history, when she wrote in her final report of her committee that “to see the Dormitory with your own eyes will give you an increased enthusiasm for the cause to which we have dedicated ourselves and will deepen your own conviction that our women will meet any responsibility upon which they have set their hearts.”
Sources: Michael A. Meyer, A Centennial History, in Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at One Hundred Years, Samuel E. Karff, ed. (Hebrew Union College Press, 1976); Hebrew Union College Monthly, May 1915; Proceedings of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Twenty-seventh Biennial Council, May 1921; and Women of Reform Judaism Records, American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Kevin Proffitt is Senior Archivist for Research and Collections at the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.