A Jewish Home Away from Home
To enrich the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people, and the world.
About OSU Hillel
OSU Hillel Today
Hillel programming today includes student groups such as Buckeyes for Israel, Greek Life Program, Jewish Business Students Association, Bnei Keshet, Jewish Pre-Medical Association, Starfish Social Action Team, the Student Board, Ask Big Israel Questions, and the Meshuga Notes. Hillel also provides programming catered toward graduate students at Ohio State. These student groups continue to carry on the tradition of vibrant Jewish life at Ohio State by advocating on behalf of Israel, doing community service, remembering the Holocaust, and creating a stronger Jewish community.
The B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at The Ohio State University was founded in 1925. This was the third Hillel to be founded in the country.
The original OSU Foundation was located in a large home at 96 East 18th Avenue, just east of Ohio State’s campus. The Foundation was located in its first home from 1925 until 1934, when a need for a larger space surfaced.
The Hillel Foundation moved a short distance from its 18th Avenue location to 46 East 16th Avenue in 1934. Hillel’s second home, a three-story building, had rooms for activities, offices, a library, and a game room. The top floor was reserved for live-in caretakers.
The Ohio State Hillel’s third home was in the Schanfarber Memorial Building. Built in 1948 on the same plot of land, 46 East 16th Avenue, this building was the first building to be designed and built specifically to be a Hillel. The building was dedicated on February 6, 1949, in honor of Edwin J. Schanfarber, a graduate of Ohio State’s Law School. While the building was in memory of E.J. Schanfarber, the chapel was dedicated as the Hillel War Memorial Chapel, in honor of the 50+ Jewish students who lost their lives in the Second World War.
The Schanfarber building provided more space for increased programming and hundreds of involved students. The goal of the new building was to give Hillel students “A Jewish home away from home.”
Ohio State’s Hillel leadership once again saw need for a new building to house the Hillel Foundation in the late 1980’s. In 1990, the OSU Hillel commenced a large fundraising campaign, which included a presentation to the Wexner Foundation, owned by Leslie Wexner, the owner of many clothing companies and a philanthropist in the Columbus area. The OSU Hillel was not a stranger to requesting funds from the Columbus community—it was the first Hillel to create a community-based endowment fund.
Once enough money was pledged to the Foundation, the building of the Wexner Hillel Foundation began. The construction lasted throughout the years 1993-1994.
The now-named Wexner Jewish Student Center is still located on 46 East 16th Avenue. The new building offers amenities including a library, rooms for meetings, offices for Hillel Staff, an auditorium, an art gallery, and two firsts for any Hillel Foundation: a fitness center, and a Kosher restaurant, which is frequently visited by OSU students as well as Columbus community members.
Ohio State’s first Hillel director, from 1925 to 1934, was Rabbi Lee Levinger, who received his bachelor’s degree in Chicago, masters at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Levinger’s other accomplishments include US Army service, as a Chaplain in France during World War I, being the author of two books: A Jewish Chaplain in France and Anti-Semitism in the United States, and a philosophy lecturer at The Ohio State University.
Hillel’s next director, Rabbi Harry Kaplan, served in the position from 1934-1969. Before his employment at Ohio State, Kaplan spent nine years as a congregational Rabbi in Massachusetts. Rabbi Kaplan’s involvement in the Columbus Jewish community was not limited to the Hillel Foundation, he was a past president of University Religion Council of Ohio State University as well as the Columbus Torch Club, a member of the board of Ohio Citizens Council, and was also one of the founders of Columbus Town Meeting. Rabbi Kaplan was the officiator of many weddings of students, alumni and other families during his time with Hillel.
Other past directors of the Ohio State Hillel Foundation include Rabbi Nathan Gaynor from 1969 to 1971, Aaron Leventhal from 1971-1980, with Rabbi Paul Golmb who held the position of director for some years of Leventhal’s time at Hillel. Rabbi Golmb was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Hebrew Union College, New York. The next two rabbis to act as director were Rabbi Howard Alpert, from 1980 until 1986, and Rabbi Steven Abrams, from 1986 until 1993, until Joseph Kohane was recruited to OSU Hillel to make major programming changes.
Joseph Kohane, has been the acting director of the Wexner Hillel Foundation since 1993. As a child of holocaust survivors, Kohane was born in Poland in 1953, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York upon his family’s immigration to the United States in 1959. After attending a Hasidic Day School and an Orthodox High School, Kohane graduated from Hunter College in Manhattan with bachelor’s degrees in English Literature, Psychology, and Jewish Studies. For graduate school, he was interested in exploring a liberal Jewish tradition and spent one year studying at the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Kohane never completed his rabbinical degree, but he did pursue graduate school at McGill, with a master’s degree in Jewish Studies, with a focus on parshanut, the history of the Jewish interpretation of the Bible.
Kohane felt that he didn’t fit into any particular Jewish denomination, which is why he found the Hillel Foundation to be a perfect fit, he explained, “It’s not about us, it’s about the journey of the student that we’re trying to facilitate.”
Kohane’s first position at a Hillel Foundation was as a Programming Director at the University of Michigan, where he eventually became the Associate Director. He had a deep interest in working with people at a religious crossroads, where he often found himself throughout life, and according to Kohane, college students were the demographic which were the most open to exploring religion. He was driven to change the face of the University Hillel with new ideas for programming and advertising.
Because of his innovative ideas, he was sought out by the Ohio State Hillel, and was asked to come and work as the director during one of the Foundation’s transitional times—the construction of the Wexner Hillel Foundation from 1993 to 1994. Kohane’s impact on the Ohio State Hillel Foundation has been great; his leadership made the OSU Hillel a model institution for other Hillel Foundations with its new approach to marketing, image, and presence on the university campus.
The work Joseph Kohane has done with The Ohio State Hillel has affected him deeply; he has created deep friendships with partners, board members, and donors of the organization. Kohane, who has also been on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of National Hillel, takes pride in his work, “I have a fabulous staff, and the students here are great… It’s been a privilege to participate.”
Compiled by Becca Nitzberg, 9 June, 2011; updated by Josh Tolle, 23 May, 2023. (For the full history of OSU Hillel, see the article from the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.)