Editor’s Note: Shortly before the publication of this story, the Slifka Center completed its renovations. Read our original story here:
On Wall Street, just past Blue State Coffee, stands the Slifka Center for Jewish Life. Once a hub for Jewish students and non-Jewish students alike looking to participate in religious programming, eat in Slifka’s celebrated dining hall or study in one of Slifka’s many light-filled spaces, Slifka has been closed for an ongoing renovation since November 2020. While students still roam campus in Slifka’s iconic “Lox Et Veritas” T-shirts and partake in Slifka’s programs, students and staff agree that the absence of Slifka’s physical space is altering their relationship with Judaism at Yale.
“On campus, I’m a relatively-participating Jew,” said Enza Jonas-Giugni ’25. “I’ve been to both Chabad and Slifka events, but until now I had no idea that there was a space for Jewish students currently under renovation.” Like other first years and sophomores who matriculated during or after fall 2020, Enza has never experienced an open and running Slifka center. In fact, she did not even know such a building existed.
Construction on the Slifka Center began in November 2020, and after a series of delays, some due to the ongoing pandemic, is slated to be finished by the fall. The kitchen and dining hall are being completely remodeled, with an expansion of dining capacity by over 20 percent. Construction is underway for a new outdoor space, and the lobby is being redesigned and refurbished to accommodate more activity. Beyond practical improvements like the kitchen upgrade, the remodel has been designed to intentionally support people meeting and gathering in the building. “We’re really trying to drive traffic into the space to reinforce that sense of community,” Slifka’s Executive Director Uri Cohen said of the renovation. In addition to infrastructure upgrades, Cohen reported that a significant portion of the renovation budget has gone to security infrastructure. New security is being installed at building entrances and exits, and building vulnerabilities are being addressed.
The center was founded in 1995, uniting several other Jewish campus groups under one roof. Serving both as a program and a physical space, the Slifka Center has grown over its time at Yale to provide interdenominational Jewish religious and cultural programming, access to robust rabbinic staff, frequent community programming and Kosher dining. Cohen described Slifka’s building as a crossroads and a “gathering place, not just for the Jewish community, [but] the whole Yale community.”
Cohen emphasized that the Slifka Center’s physical building addresses two critical needs: safety and dining. After the discovery of antisemitic graffiti in the Kline Biology Tower this past fall, Cohen addressed a letter to the Slifka community describing the legacy and rise of antisemetism today. Echoing that statement, Cohen elaborated on Slifka’s role as a force against antisemitism at Yale. “Antisemitism is on the rise across the world and across the country,” Cohen said. “We’ve had antisemitic activity in New Haven and at Yale, so it’s really important that there be a physically safe space for the Jewish community, and for everyone.”
Reconciling the desire for Slifka to be an open and welcoming space with the building’s role in public safety, Cohen continued: “Everyone is welcome, except the people who are trying to do us harm.” Even the building’s physical presence, Cohen explained, has a role in fighting antisemitism. The building, he said, is able to fight antisemitism simply by existing, by educated nonjewish students about Judaism, and by being a welcoming space with open doors.
The second need the Wall Street building addresses is dining. To accommodate the needs of students who keep Kosher, the Slifka center typically serves meals seven days a week which students can access using their regular meal swipe. Extended dining hours and an on-site kitchen have made Slifka’s food popular across Yale, beyond just the Jewish community.
The building’s renovation has limited Slifka’s in-person dining services, but only “secondarily to COVID,” according to Cohen. “When the pandemic started, everybody’s needs changed,” Cohen said. “We couldn’t do the main things that Jewish communities do, which is bring people together, namely over food. Those things turned out to be the worst possible things we could do from a public health standpoint. And because of the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, making sure that we’re looking out for human life, we had to abide by those restrictions from a moral, ethical, Jewish perspective.”
The transition from in-person to online, necessitated by both the renovations and pandemic restrictions, involved a lot of change for the Slifka community. Programming shifted online, and staff and student leaders had to identify new ways to make connections. “Individual relationship building changed a lot, and people’s needs changed a lot. There were a lot of people who were sick, or lost family and who were dealing with really serious life-cycle events that happened off-cycle because of COVID,” Cohen said.
All campus religious groups have faced similar challenges because of COVID-19, according to Associate Chaplain Maytal Saltiel, who works in interfaith programming in the Yale Chaplain’s Office. “Covid has just flipped everything upside down and made things very difficult, both in daily religious life, but also just in how we gather,” Saltiel said. “How can we be together in grief and mourning, also in celebration?”
Saltiel echoed Cohen’s point about the inherent tension between religious gatherings and the desire to abide by safety restrictions. “We’re open and try to advocate for and work with our religious groups on campus,” Saltiel said. “But we are very cognizant of the life lost, of the dangers of COVID in some ways, and how our religious communities impact more than just our student community.”
Despite COVID-19’s impact on Slifka’s activity, the center has been operating out of a temporary location known as “Slifka North” at 105 Whitney Ave. A narrow, white-walled space, Slifka North looks very little like the Wall Street building. Students and staff have decorated with posters and couches, but the space remains sterile. Slifka North provides some physical gathering space for students and dining options for students who require kosher meals. On Sundays, during Slifka’s ever popular “Bagel Brunch,” where students can use their meal swipes for fresh bagels and mounds of lox, students pack into the small space to build their plates and eat, chatting and smiling, on Slifka’s couches and the tables outside. Perhaps most reminiscent of what typical life at Slifka looked like before fall 2020, Bagel Brunch is a poppy-seeded light at the end of the tunnel.
However, Cohen says Slifka North is not a perfect substitute for the Wall Street building, called “Slifka Main” in light of the renovation. “We didn’t have any good options for temporary space,” Cohen said. “We scoured every lead both on and off-campus. We thought we did well by finding a location only a seven-minute walk from Slifka Center, but it proved to be much more out-of-the-way than we had anticipated … So that’s been really hard. Without a kitchen we’re much more limited with the food we offer, so it’s only made it more challenging to build vibrant community. When we’re back in the building we’ll have location, space, and awesome food to offer once again.”
The result of the less convenient location is having an impact on who shows up to Slifka programming. “It’s not Slifka’s fault that the building has been delayed, but it has resulted in the community being much more orthodox-centric than it otherwise would have been,” said Ilan Dubler-Furman ’25. “It’s more annoying to go to things when the temporary location is far from campus.” Orthodox Jews, who typically practice stricter levels of observance, tend to be more likely to require kosher dining or frequent opportunities for religious services. As Dubler-Furman describes, while many of Yale’s Jews would not identify as Orthodox, programming at Slifka North largely attracts those who require it rather than those who seek it out, thus resulting in a more Orthodox-leaning group of Slifka “regulars.”
Cohen also acknowledged that the composition of who regularly attends Slifka might be different due to the relative inconvenience of Slifka North. “I think there is certainly an element of self-selection to the people that come to Slifka North regularly,” Cohen said. “There’s no doubt that because it’s not convenient, it is often the case that folks who come to Slifka North are looking for something specific. When we’re back in the building we expect that students will once again visit for convenience and for a casual reason in addition to those who are looking for something specific.” Cohen elaborated that food, a minyan — a quorum required for religious practice, usually composed of 10 individuals — individual meetings or fellowship participation are the main reasons people regularly attend Slifka North.“It’s not a place you’re just gonna drop by,” Cohen said.
Saltiel also expressed the challenges of finding space for Yale’s many religious groups. “Space at Yale is always a good question because it’s inherently political as well,” she said. “Our religious groups ebb and flow, so it’s hard to say how many there are in a particular year.” She mentioned various Protestant ministries, most of which, she said, are not associated with any kind of physical space. She said the Christian Union is an exception, and the University Church in Yale worships in Battell Chapel. Yale’s Muslim community uses the Musalla and the Hindu community has a Hindu prayer room, both of which are located outside of Saltiel’s office in Bingham Hall.
Saltiel, emphasizing the interfaith work that the Chaplain’s Office does, highlighted that having a specific physical space may not be all positive. “I think that there are benefits to having physical spaces, but I think there are also losses to having freestanding buildings and physical spaces. And I think part of the loss is that there is not the regular interaction with other religious communities in these spaces,” she said.
Slifka North, designed to serve the community as a temporary space, does feel highly temporary. But for some students, Slifka North is all they have known at Yale. “I have never been at school when there has been a building,” said Lia Solomon ’24. Solomon, who serves on Slifka’s student board, has only been on campus since the renovation began. “It does feel like we as a community are decentralized,” she continued. “I think one difficult thing to do without a building is attracting Jews who don’t need the building for kosher food or worship but who do want to connect to their Jewish identities. I think given the circumstances Slifka staff and student leaders have been doing a great job but I do think that people are starting to lose hope in the building opening and therefore in being part of the community.”
Slifka Main, according to both Solomon and Cohen, does serve as a casual space for community. “I think the thing that people miss most is having casual social interactions,” Solomon said. “The building used to be a place where people would spend free time.” Cohen agreed, explaining that he sees Slifka North as very different from Slifka Main. He recalls Slifka Main as a place where people would drop by casually all the time, in between classes, if they had an extra 10 minutes, or just to study. “Nobody is coming to Slifka North just to study,” Cohen said. Cohen noted that Friday night Shabbat dinners — which have recently taken place in more convenient locations including Yale Law School’s dining hall and the Omni Hotel — have been well attended across the community, with “10 times” as many people as those who regularly go to Slifka North, indicating that Slfika’s interdenominational identity is not necessarily solely represented by who frequents Slifka North.
Despite the challenges Slifka is facing in its temporary space, the community has remained resilient. “The Slifka community has been great for me as an observant first year starting school,” Dubler-Furman said. “I look forward to the building being open so that the community can be fully functioning.”
Cohen described the growth and evolution of the center in his three years since joining Slifka’s staff in terms of two parts: the physical space and the essence of the organization. Regarding the physical space, it’s hard to see any sort of growth, Cohen said. Remembering the building as he inherited it, Cohen admits that contrasting a bustling community space with a construction site makes it hard to see Slifka’s upwards trajectory. “That’s difficult, but it’s very much like everything else in the world, which is that we’ve had a major speed bump, and it’s hard to recover from that, especially because the speed bump isn’t over yet.”
However, regarding the Slifka community, Cohen describes it as a “straight shot up.”
“We’re much more consistent than we were, our language is much more encompassing of the breadth of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Cohen explained. “A lot of people were new when I joined, but we’ve had a lot of awesome people come to the organization.”
“I had felt that a casual space oriented towards fostering Jewish community was missing on campus,” said Jonas-Giugani. “As someone who feels very culturally connected to Judaism but less religiously connected to Judaism, having a space like this that would allow me to connect with other Jewish students on campus any day of the week is something that I’m really looking forward to.”
Cohen is looking forward to the building’s reopening as Slifka’s activity “on the ground” comes to match the “essence of the organization.” “I can’t wait to welcome everybody back, and I wish we had been able to welcome everybody back sooner. The whole point of the renovation is to support our mission, empower both our staff, students and the community, and the whole design advances that purpose,” he said. “When the building reopens, we’ll have the mission, the people and the building working synergistically together, and at that point, I hope we’ll see what’s happening on the ground matching the institutional progression that has proceeded unabated all this time.”