Renovated Hillel center offers place of worship, kosher cafe

On the fourth night of Hanukkah the University of Miami unveiled Hillel’s new home, the Braman Miller Center for Jewish Student Life.

The renovated Hillel center was unveiled Wednesday, 62 years after the original building was built in 1953. The center was named after the Braman and Miller families for their $2.5 million naming gift. It is a three-story building with a rooftop lounge on the third floor. There is a prayer sanctuary, multipurpose classroom space, a new lobby and a kosher cafe that will be available for students opting in to the kosher dining plan. The Hillel center will serve as a multipurpose space for worship, celebrations and other Hillel programming.

The mission of UM’s Hillel is to reach every Jewish student on campus. Since construction began on the renovations last year, Hillel has focused its efforts on reaching out to students. Now that the building is open, Associate Director of UM Hillel, Robyn Fisher, wants to find the balance between creating a sacred place for Jewish practices and a hub for campus life.

“This Hillel is not just for the Jewish students on campus. It’s for the University of Miami campus. It’s for everybody to be proud of and enjoy and be a part of,” said Fisher.

Fisher found that opening the new center during Hanukkah was a perfect time to rededicate the sacred space. In honor of the fourth night of Hanukkah, First Lady of the University of Miami, Felicia Knaul, led attendees in blessings as she lit the menorah. As a daughter of a concentration camp survivor, Dr. Knaul found belonging in her Hillel center as a student at Harvard University.

“Boston was a place I didn’t know well. Cambridge is a place I didn’t know well then. Having a place that was nearby that I could go to pray was particularly important to me,” she said.

The UM’s Hillel has helped Jewish students strengthen their faith and learn more about the practice of Judaism.

Janu Mendel, a staffer at UM’s Hillel, reconnected with the Jewish community upon coming to Miami after graduating from university in Jamaica, where his campus did not have a Hillel.

“Finding my way here as a staff member has been really incredible for me because it has allowed me to feed my own soul,” said Mendel.

Mendel considers himself the poster-boy for someone who could not find a way to connect to the community until he found Hillel.

As a staff member, he wants to give back to the students of the UM because he understands what students face on a daily basis, from adjusting to figuring out how their Jewish values or identity affects their life on campus.

“For me, to be able to help them through that and help them facilitate Jewish experiences and understand why Judaism is important in their lives as young adults is something that is truly fulfilling,” said Mendel.

In addition to serving the Jewish community on campus, Knaul foresees Hillel serving as a center where students can learn about the heritage of Jewish people to facilitate discussions surrounding social justice.

“I would very much like to see this as a place where not only Jews who practice or feel about their Judaism in all different ways but also, individuals who practice different religions or don’t practice religion can find a home for conversation,” said Knaul.