In Chani Oppenheim’s office is a display board that simultaneously brings tears to her eyes and a smile to her face.
On the left side of the board is a small, yellow bungalow with the word “today” under it. The 80-year-old house on A Street had been the site of Hillel meetings for several decades.
On the right side of the board is an artist’s rendering of a Craftsman-style house with the word “tomorrow” under it. Construction on Hillel’s new, bigger home is set to finish in April; a grand reopening is planned for May.
“There is so much love with that home,” said the executive director of Hillel in Davis-Sacramento, pointing to the little house. “Take the best adjectives you can think of to describe ‘home,’ and we’re going to transfer those (ideas) from that house to this house.”
The original Hillel House at 328 A St. had 1,100 square feet, a cramped kitchen and one bathroom. The bungalow and a rental property on the same plot of land were demolished in April. Since then, local construction crews have been busy raising a 9,500-square-foot, environmentally friendly two-story center for local Jewish student programs with a commercial kitchen, full basement and multiple bathrooms.
While Harrison Construction and its subcontractors are moving at a brisk pace, the tempo preceding the spring groundbreaking was slow. There were city approval hoops to jump through and funding to find. Capital campaign chairman Raphael Moore said the project would not move forward until there was proper funding.
“A rule we set was not to take any mortgage in order to not end up like others (who lost their properties),” Moore said. “It’s important because this is not a membership organization, so there are no dues.”
Generous donors stepped up with one-time gifts or matching gift offers. Longtime Davis resident Shula Blumenthal donated $50,000 for matching in honor of her late husband, Oscar.
“The young generation is the future of our nation,” Blumenthal said. “It’s important to me that Jewish students have a home away from home where they can practice their rituals, learn about their heritage and have a safe place to meet. No organization is able to accomplish all of that the way Hillel does.”
The challenge was met, and so she put another $50,000 on the table.
“She wanted to do something special for Oscar,” Moore said. “As she puts it, she wants to put me out of the fundraising business.”
Moore, who was part of the Hillel community when he attended college, has sat on the board of directors for the past 13 years.
“I’m going to be retiring in July,” he said. “My promise was to get this building built for future generations.”
And the future generations are happy that Moore is a man of his word. There are about 4,500 students who call Hillel home during a school year. The Hillel Davis-Sacramento chapter is open to students at UC Davis, Sacramento State, McGeorge School of Law and American River, Sacramento City and Sierra community colleges.
“It’s incredible,” UCD junior Rachel Berliner said. “I feel like it’s been a long process and so well deserved by the Jewish community and the Davis community. This is a home away from home. The new one will still be that; it will just be a bigger home away from home.”
Although Hillel is designed to enhance the lives of Jewish students and help build a Jewish community, featuring Shabbat meals, prayer services and more, it is open to students of all faiths and creeds.
“I never ask anyone if they’re Jewish,” Oppenheim said. “If they’re walking in the door, they must need something. ”
Sometimes what they need is as simple as a snack and a place to study. In the old building, study and snack times could turn “cozy” quickly, as students filed into the property. In the new building, there will be more room and a bigger kitchen. In fact, there will be two kitchens.
The new property will feature the lone commercial kosher kitchen in Yolo County. There will be two separate areas for preparing meals, keeping dairy and meat away from each other. The commercial kitchen will be off-limits except to certain staff members to ensure it’s kept kosher.
Open to all will be a kitchenette. Moore envisions students making a little bite to eat and finding a place to study. And he’s not the only one with dreams.
“I’m excited about the kitchen,” Berliner said. “My freshman year, I helped cook meals. I learned better cooking skills.”
Oppenheim echoed: “I’m most excited for a modern functioning kitchen, where things actually work. Students are most excited about the kitchen. It’s where everyone gathers. They feel right at home, and they clean up after themselves without me asking.”
She leaned back in her chair and smiled like a proud mother.
“(The new home) is a beautiful space, and I think the students will appreciate the beauty of it,” she said. “I think if fits beautifully with the ambiance of Davis. It’s a warm, welcoming town, taking in people from around the world, and we do the same.”
There is more — much more — to the new Hillel House than a kitchen.
With the house fully framed out, it is easy to fill in the blanks and envision the finished product. In the 2,400-square-foot basement is a meeting area, serving kitchen (with a dumbwaiter from the main kitchen), stage area and bathrooms. The housing for the elevator is also here.
The main floor features offices, the commercial and standard kitchens, bathrooms, a foyer, study/meeting cafe and synagogue. Douglas fir beams and large windows highlight the foyer.
On the second floor, there are more meeting rooms and more bathrooms.
All rooms will have flat-screen televisions so that if there is an overflow from meetings, no matter where you are in the building you can still be part of what is happening.
And being part of something is key to life at Hillel House.
“It’s never been about a physical building,” Oppenheim said. “It’s good, but it is just the physical structure in which all this great stuff is going to be happening.”
Happening somewhere near a kitchen.
— Reach Kim Orendor at [email protected]