Four decades after being built, USC’s Hillel center received renovations last summer after receiving funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Renovations began in early May, after the center hosted an event honoring former USC President Steve B. Sample. Renovations concluded before move-in week in August.
The building was very run-down before the improvements, said Michael Jeser, executive director of Hillel. It was filled with donated items and used, torn up furniture. The flooring hadn’t been replaced in more than a decade, which Jeser said caused the building to lack a welcoming, modern atmosphere.
“[We wanted] to upgrade the facility, make it more welcoming and open for students,” Jeser said. “[We wanted to] create more of a space that students could use for recreational, social, and academic purposes.”
Modernization was a key part in the renovation, Jeser said. New furniture, flooring, glass windows and paint brought a more contemporary atmosphere to the building.
“It used to be empty, like a warehouse feel. There were a few couches, but now there are dedicated spaces that students can use for meetings, social activities, and watching movies,” Jeser said.
Cameron Roth, USC Hillel student president, said the new additions to the center automatically welcome students and make them feel more comfortable.
“The first day people came back, people walked in the door and went straight to these lounge areas. No one used to come over here; it was uninviting,” said Roth, who also said he was glad to see the new wheelchair-accessible ramp at the University Walk entrance.
A new drought-tolerant landscape was installed outside in order to help the environment, Jeser said. Other water-saving features were also installed in the bathrooms.
“People feel more comfortable coming in with the change to the exterior,” Roth said. “Now people notice the building is here and they want to peek in. Getting them interested on their own is a great way to get them to come to events.”
More entertainment and audiovisual equipment have been added as well. A large flat-screen TV greets visitors at the entrance to Hillel, with slideshows of activities and announcements. Two more flat screens occupy the building, and all TVs have Direct TV. Other technology upgrades include free WiFi throughout the building and video surveillance for enhanced security.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which contributes the most funding to Hillel, played a vital role in the renovation. The Real Estate Principals Organization, which is affiliated with the Jewish Federation and led by USC alumnus Jon Monkarsh, donated $75,000 to help fund the renovations.
“It really is with great pride that we have supported Hillel at the federation, and especially the contribute we made to this facility. Not only the financial contribution but the time and the effort we put in,” said Richard Sandler, chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Here at Hillel, you are carrying forward really the greatest traditions of our culture, and that is education and values.”
The renovation effort was led by USC Hillel Chairman Jaime Gesundheit. Gesundheit, who is an alumnus from the School of Architecture, spearheaded the entire design effort, with assistance from designer Nichole Sassaman.
On Wednesday evening, Hillel celebrated the “Extreme Hillel Makeover” with keynote speaker President C.L. Max Nikias. Nikias spoke about the relationship between USC and the Jewish community, and the importance of a strong, vibrant Hillel at USC.
“[Hillel] helps our students connect to the rest of the university and the larger world. USC Hillel plays an important role of connecting the students today with the traditions of the past,” Nikias said. “As president of USC I pledge to you that this partnership will continue. This Hillel will flourish.”
Members of the USC Board of Trustees — including Dr. Andrew Viterbi, Stanley P. Gold, Kenneth Leventhal, Alan Casden and Daniel Epstein — participated in a Jewish ceremony to celebrate the opening of the newly renovated building.
“When people feel comfortable enough to treat this place like a home instead of another university building, that’s when you know Hillel has done its job,” Roth said. “We can provide any amount of programming but nothing beats a home away from home.”