The Texas Hillel we know today has evolved through the years. What began in an old house on West Avenue in 1927, has become a fixture in the Texas Jewish community. For some, it’s a place to learn; for others, it is a place to meet new people. For everyone involved with Texas Hillel, it is a Jewish connection to history, heritage, education and faith.
In its inaugural years, Hillel had no permanent staff. Rabbi Samuel Halevi Baron from Temple Beth Israel in Austin, volunteered his time to support the students’ needs. In 1930, a fire forced Texas Hillel to relocate to a loft off the Texas Theater building on Guadalupe Street. Nearly 900 Jewish students attended The University of Texas during the 1930s. Fraternities and sororities used the Hillel building as a venue for social events and speakers. By comparison, today we have almost doubled the physical space, and we have more than 4,000 Jewish students!
In the mid 40’s, the students outgrew Hillel’s loft on the Drag. Without money of their own to purchase a new building, Hillel supporters sought the help of the community. Generous Jewish business people donated funding for the structure on San Antonio Street…where Texas Hillel remains today.
According to a 1949 Daily Texan article, Hillel had a 450-person chapel, tropical plants, a ping-pong table, and fountains. Students read the Torah, learned Hebrew, Yiddish, and Jewish History in the facility’s library and classrooms. In addition to traditional uses of the building, Rabbis volunteered their time to teach credit courses and biblical studies for the university. Two-hundred students filled the two available classrooms for the popular courses. Eventually, Texas’ iconic football coach, Darrell K. Royal, encouraged his athletes to take the courses for enjoyment.
Among the many figures that loomed large on the Hillel scene was University of Texas reknowned Math Professor, Hyman J. Ettlinger. Ettlinger was a true renaissance person, and was instrumental in putting Texas Hillel and The University of Texas’ football team on the map. Mathematician, football coach, civic leader… H.J. Ettlinger did it all.
In the 1970s, the Federations in Texas began contributing to Hillel, and with their support, the funding of programs increased multifold. Once local Federations came on board, B’nai B’rith phased-out, and Hillel board members represented Federations throughout Texas. In 1998, at the urging of Hillel International, Texas Hillel committed to then-International President Richard Joel’s vision of a Hillel renaissance, and undertook an ambitious plan to take Texas Hillel into the 21st Century. Again, with state-wide support, an incredible team of staff and volunteers completed a successful capital campaign, and the construction of a new, 18,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art building, The Topfer Center for Jewish Life, was completed and dedicated in February 2006. One year later, Abe and Annie Seibel’s names were added to the building in recognition of the Seibel Foundation’s significant contributions to the capital and endowment campaigns.
More than eight decades after the first Texas Hillel opened its doors in Austin, generations of the Texas Hillel family continue to honor Texas Hillel’s future with their support. Texas Hillel’s future is a bright star of Jewish education, engagement and friendship, deep in the heart of Texas!
(Thank you to UT alumni Glen Rosenbaum and Marci Rosmarin for their assistance in compiling this data)