Slifka at 13: Spiritual or social hub?

Thirteen years after its inception, the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life has come of age.

Once called the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation, offering traditional basics in Jewish Life such as kosher cuisine and rabbinical services, Slifka outgrew its childhood name and expanded to include a cornucopia of Jewish culture ranging from Yoga sessions to Late Nite @ the Slif, a study break with refreshments and comfortable purple sofas. At once a cultural house, temple and venue for the larger Yale community, Slifka today has also established itself as a social hub that welcomes both practicing and culturally affiliated Jews.

Jews and gentiles alike gather to enjoy the buffet at Slifka’s popular bagel brunch, held every other Sunday at the Hillel.
Daniel Carvalho
Jews and gentiles alike gather to enjoy the buffet at Slifka’s popular bagel brunch, held every other Sunday at the Hillel.

A brief glance inside the Slifka building located on Wall Street reveals speaks volumes for Yale’s Jewish community.

In the reception area, magazines such as “Lilith,” a Jewish feminist publication, the Yale Daily News and “New Voices,” the national Jewish student magazine, are neatly stacked on the table. On the west wall is a glorious mosaic rendition of “Joseph and His Coat of Many Colors,” by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle — what Director of Development Shana Ross ’00 SOM ’06 calls “Slifka’s lipstick,” in reference to the “Lipstick Ascending” sculpture displayed in the Morse courtyard.

Behind another wall is Sussman Hall — colloquially referred to as “The Purple Couch Room.” The room is one of Slifka’s most distinctive features, as it caters to the diverse social needs of its participants, said Gabrielle Pasternak, Slifka’s development and communications associate.

“It’s unique because it’s just a space for anyone and everyone to use for whatever they want,” she said.

UNITING UNDER ONE BANNER, TWICE

Jewish life at Yale was officially united under the banner of the Yale Hillel in 1941, an independent group which organized bible discussion sessions, holiday celebrations and symposiums with other colleges.

But Hillel services were scattered all over Yale’s campus. On a given Friday night during the school year, there was a Reform service in Branford College, an Orthodox service under Harkness Tower and a Conservative service on High Street. Throughout the week, the Young Israel House Kosher Kitchen served meals on Crown Street.

Head Rabbi James Ponet ’68, who was the chaplain for Yale Hillel for 14 years prior to Slifka’s founding, said Slifka revolutionized the presence of Jewish life on campus.

“13 years later, we’ve become an establishment,” he said during Slifka’s Bar Mitzvah Bagel Brunch last Sunday.

No longer limited to snappily-dressed young men and women studying the Old Testament and attending symposiums, Slifka is now a gathering place for a wide-ranging group of students whose Judaism runs the gamut from religious to cultural to social.

Ross said that the Center offers new approaches to exploring Judaism, such as a summer trip to Guatemala for Jewish text study.

“People come here for different reasons,” she said. “We are both a religious and social center.” But many Jews, she said, focus on culture rather than religion. It is a place where non-practicing Jews can come to eat traditional holiday food, she offered.

It is estimated that some 20-25 percent of students on campus would call themselves Jewish. Many Jewish students interviewed said they frequent the Center, and even “casual” Jewish students said they attend Shabbat dinner, holiday celebrations and other social events from time to time.

Most students praised Slifka for its appeal to both serious and casual Jews. Yael Zinkow ’12, whose parents are both rabbis, said she regularly attends Slifka for religious as well as social purposes.

“That’s what’s so cool about it,” she said. “I go there to pray and I go there to hang out with friends.”

STILL RELIGIOUS, AT LEAST FOR FRATS

But many culturally affiliated Jews on campus looking to the center as a recreational meeting place disagreed, saying they found Slifka to be more of a religious center. Bill Toth ’12, a member of Alpha Epsilon Phi, the Jewish fraternity at Yale, said his fraternity both overlaps and complements the events offered at Slifka.

“I found in Slifka an atmosphere more religious and less social than at AEPi,” he said. “But that is not to say that Slifka’s social scene is weak by any standards.”

Toth added that more than half of the AEPi brothers attend Slifka events on a regular basis, and some of them are involved in Slifka’s leadership.

“I go to service once a week,” Toth said. “And pretty much every time I’m at Slifka, I see at least two brothers there.”

The center’s continual growth and outreach has attracted more and more students — Jewish as well as gentile — from all ends of campus. Pasternak mentioned that non-Jewish students are always welcome, though they may not be “specifically targeted.”

The kosher kitchen often overflows at mealtimes and during Sunday bagel brunches with latecomers scrambling to fill in vacated seats. But when the possibility of physical expansion was raised, Pasternak said she was satisfied with the unique, intimate atmosphere the current building provides.

“I’ve seen the building when there are five people in it, and I’ve seen it when there are hundreds,” she said. “But I think the quaint nature and size is part of [Slifka’s] personality.”

THE NEXT 13 YEARS

The future of Slifka is a bright one, the Center’s members concluded. Representatives said that they are looking to increase outreach while improving current initiatives.

Ross said she hopes to expand Slifka’s scope for the Jewish community by focusing on the needs and wants of the Center’s members. She also wants to encourage the participation of more people, such as alumni and members outside the immediate Yale community. At the same time, she said Slifka’s services must continue to evolve as “not everyone will have the same relationship with religion ten years from now.”

Ponet, the head Rabbi, also has a host of ideas for Slifka’s expansion, creating new Jewish traditions into the next 13 years. Gesticulating enthusiastically with his coffee cup, he extolled his favorite subject: food. He said he hopes to revolutionize Jewish holiday cuisine to become more modern and sustainable. Among other things, Ponet said he wants to increase Slifka’s emphasis on the arts by establishing a new arts committee.

But Zeke Miller ’11, a reporter for the Yale Daily News, said other Jewish groups with little or no affiliation with Slifka have arisen in the past 13 years. For instance, Chabad at Yale opened in 2001, welcoming Jews of all backgrounds and degrees of observance to explore their heritage in a “warm, welcoming and non-judgmental environment.” Additionally, Jews for Justice, is a pluralistic community of Jews united by a commitment to pursuing social and economic justice at Yale.

While such cultural groups have formed, many students agreed that Slifka’s presence in the Yale community is constantly growing. Leslie Golden ’10 said Slifka has done a much better job at reaching out to students since her freshman year.

“I never heard about what Slifka had to offer when I was a freshman,” she said. “But now, I come to the bagel brunch every Sunday — religiously.”

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