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Amid allegations of antisemitism, University of Illinois to offer Jewish-affiliated student housing

As the University of Illinois faces accusations of antisemitism, the campus’s Chabad house has partnered with the university to offer students Jewish-affiliated housing starting next fall, according to the organization’s rabbi.

Last July, Illini Chabad purchased a 27,000-square-foot building in the center of campus, originally built as a fraternity house. The bottom two floors of the building, Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel explained in an interview, will continue the services the Chabad house offered at its prior, smaller location – such as prayer spaces, study and common rooms and a kosher dining hall. But on the top two floors, 32 students will have the opportunity to live in university-certified dorms.

The co-ed dorms, according to Tiechtel, will allow students easy access to the kosher meals downstairs, Shabbat accommodations and the chance to live and learn with Jewish peers regardless of their level of observance. At present, the university’s Chabad is serving 2,500 students each year, Tiechtel estimated.

But for some Jewish prospective students, allegations of antisemitism against the 44,000-student university may be deterrents to enrolling. A Title VI complaint filed against the university with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in October claimed, according to Jewish Insider, that the university “failed to combat antisemitism as vigorously as it has combated other forms of bigotry on its campus.” The complaint listed a dozen alleged incidents dating back to 2015, including defacing property owned by Jewish fraternities and sororities and repeated vandalism of the Chabad House’s menorah. In 2019, four swastikas were found on the university’s campus.

The university’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“I know at least three of my friends,” said Sammy Moscovitch, a freshman at UI, “who don’t walk around with a kippah on their heads because they’re afraid of antisemitism on campus.” Moscovitch said he is excited to apply to live in the Chabad house next term, adding that to him, Chabad already feels like his “home away from home.”

In Rabbi Tiechtel’s view, “antisemitism, unfortunately, is bigger on campuses, and living in a dorm environment, unfortunately, a lot of it is the norm and tolerated.” The housing opportunity, in addition to providing space for living with accommodations for kosher and Shabbat observance, could combat that environment, he explained.

“If there’s one place on campus you want to be comfortable,” he said, “it’s at least where you go to sleep at night.” On the UI campus, Tiechtel explained, university-certified Baptist student housing, Catholic student housing and Presbyterian student housing all already exist. Jewish housing would fall under that model.

Many universities have chosen to combat issues of racism by establishing affinity student housing – dorms specifically designed to create spaces for minority students to feel comfortable on campus. Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University and Amherst College, among others, all provide affinity housing in some form.

For Raina Kutliroff, a junior at the University of Illinois, Jewish-affiliated housing would have been her first-choice as a freshman if it had existed at the time.

“I definitely would have liked to have something similar when I was a freshman,” Kutliroff, 21, said. “Without a doubt. It’s easy, convenient, it’s Jewish community. That’s where I want to be.”

The new housing also comes at a time when Chabad is expanding its presence on American college campuses. Chabad houses at Princeton and Ohio State University doubled the size of their properties last year, and in January, Chabad of Duke University bought a historic local inn for more than $3 million.

Jared London, a 20-year-old sophomore and the Illini Chabad student president, said that although he will continue to live at his fraternity’s house next fall, he supports the creation of the new dorms. “It’s great that more religious Jewish students have the ability to follow strict kosher, follow Shabbat rules with electricity,” he said. “In a normal dorm, you can’t really follow those rules, you still have to turn the lights on and off.”

Erez Cohen, the director of the university’s Hillel, said the housing offered by Chabad will be a good opportunity to attract more observant students to apply to the university.

“We are very excited to see more resources available for Jewish students on campus,” Cohen said. “Our goal is really to turn the University of Illinois into the center of Jewish life in the midwest.”

Cohen explained that at the University of Illinois, both Hillel and Chabad have worked in recent years to create opportunities for observant and non-observant students, with Hillel in particular building an eruv around campus, offering more kosher food options and increasing its staff. For its part, Chabad has gone from offering kosher dinners daily to offering both lunches and dinners.

For Tiechel, who has been at UI for 18 years, the new dormitory is the latest iteration of what he said is his constant goal: “How can we increase and grow sustainable Jewish life at Illinois, create a space where students can be proud and active, believe in who they are and mainstream within the campus environment?”

In Tiechel’s view, Jewish-affiliated housing may become more common across university campuses in the U.S.

“The reality is that Illinois has been a trendsetter,” he said, referring to his campus’s early adoption of kosher dining halls. “This is the next page.”

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