Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion

1995

Thesis Director

Barry D. Riccio

Abstract

Throughout American history, America's Jews lived in a mixed environment, one that both offered them the possibility of acceptance and demanded a certain level of conformity as its price. While antisemitism in America neither reached the level of virulence nor enjoyed the official sanction that it did in other parts of the world, it nonetheless has almost always been a part of the American Jewish experience, especially during the first half of the twentieth century. Much of American antisemitism was expressed through various forms of social discrimination (that was not always strictly social), justified by the image of "Jewish undesirability," which punished American Jews for both "clannishness" and trying too hard to become part of the American mainstream. This type of discrimination was particularly evident in the lives of Jewish college and university students.

During this era, the most common Jewish response to anti-Jewish prejudice was one of accommodation and assimilation, downplaying ones' Jewish identity in an effort to fit into mainstream American society, a strategy especially common among Jewish college and university students. The combination of a social environment that demanded conformity, and just as significantly, scant access to Jewish religious or cultural activities, gave the average Jewish-American college student little incentive to identify as a Jew. The B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundations, the brainchild of Rabbi Benjamin Frankel and Edward Chauncy Baldwin, a non-Jewish English professor, filled this Jewish void beginning in 1923 at the University of Illinois. Hillel provided Jewish students across the United States with a source of positive Jewish identification, which in turn helped to reduce anti-Jewish prejudice both on campuses and in the larger American community.

This thesis, therefore, includes not only the early history of the University of Illinois Hillel itself, but of the surrounding Jewish community in Champaign and Urbana, Illinois, as well as a contextual overview of the American Jewish experience before, during, and after Hillel's founding. The sources range from previously published histories of the Hillel foundation movement to manuscript collections and oral histories, as well as more general works concerning the American Jewish experience and the history of college life.

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