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Our Story: The Freeman Center for Jewish Life

Home Blog Our Story: The Freeman Center for Jewish Life

The Journey to Provide a Jewish Student Center on Duke's Campus

This post was originally published in 2019, for the 20th Anniversary of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life.

As the Freeman Center for Jewish Life celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2019, we are immensely grateful for the efforts from so many over the years to make the Freeman Center a reality. Over the past 20 years, the Freeman Center, which houses Jewish Life at Duke and the Rubenstein-Silvers Hillel, has become a home away from home for our students and families, faculty, staff and community.

The story of a Jewish student center on Duke’s campus began in 1986 with Duke alumnus, Gil Scharf T’70, P’16, who sought a space for Jewish students, faculty and staff to call home. Prior to the construction of the Freeman Center, Jewish students celebrated holidays and other Jewish rituals in a variety of places on campus – ranging from the basement of Duke Chapel to Gross Chem (the Paul M. Gross Hall) to the Chapel Hill High School gymnasium to the former Hillel House on Alexander Avenue.

With the support of Duke’s then-President, H. Keith H. Brodie, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, John Piva, formerly Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development, and Judith Ruderman, PhD ’76, then Director of the Office of Continuing Education and Vice Provost for Academic and Administrative Services, a public announcement was made to build a center that would serve as a hub for Duke’s Jewish life. A hard-working volunteer committee, with invaluable student representation, developed the concept of what such a center should look like to best fulfill its mission to enrich university life for all students.

There were challenges along the way, including selection of a visionary architect, determining the best site on campus, and fundraising for the center. Nevertheless, the Jewish community on campus and off persisted, and the center’s groundbreaking ceremony took place on April 4, 1997 with the dedication on October 24, 1999. 

Following are some of Ruderman’s remarks shared at the 1997 groundbreaking ceremony for the Freeman Center for Jewish Life:

“It was a little over ten years ago that President Keith Brodie and Dean Will Willimon asked me to become part of a planning committee to bring a Center for Jewish Life into fruition—the vision of Duke alumnus Gil Scharf, class of 1970. It was with alacrity that I came aboard, and I see in the crowd today the faces of people who hopped on the train at the same time as I did. Yes, it is true that the train made many unscheduled detours on the way to its destination. Sometimes it huffed and puffed; occasionally it seemed to run out of steam. It even teetered precariously when rounding a few curves. But the train never got derailed. 

If I had known then how long it would take to get from there to here, would I have started on that journey? You bet! Am I glad that I didn’t know then how long it would take to get from there to here? You bet!

But the reasons we’ve all worked so hard for this day are standing right here before us: first, the Jewish students for whom the CJL will be a welcome home; then, the Jewish faculty and staff who will also find a sense of community here, and a place to meet with students; and finally, the larger Jewish community of the Research Triangle, for whom the CJL will be another rich resource.”

The Sunday, October 24, 1999 dedication took place during Family Weekend and honored several founding benefactors. Brian and Harriet Freeman, z”l, made the visionary primary private contribution toward the construction of the building, and thus, the Freeman Center for Jewish Life was named in their honor. Brian Freeman was a member of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy’s Board of Visitors, and Harriet Freeman was a member of the Center for Jewish Life’s Board. Their children, all Duke alumni, continue to honor their parents’ gift and vision for Jewish life on campus.  

At the dedication, Brian Freeman shared that it was his family’s intent that the center benefit and serve the entire Duke and Durham community. “My family and I have viewed it as a privilege and an opportunity to be able to help enhance the fabric of Duke, including its students’ cultural and social experience and perspective,” he said.

In addition to Brian and Harriet Freeman, P’96, ’98, ’02, the additional founding benefactors, without whom this vision could have not become a reality, included Samuel and Veronica Heyman P’94, ’03; Bernice Levenson Lerner WC’53, P’79, ‘85, ’87, and her late husband Mort Lerner; Philip and Susan Oppenheimer Sassower, P’95, ’98, GP’21; and Gilbert D. T’70, P’16 and Ruth Calvin N’80, P’16 Scharf. 

“We are grateful to the Freeman family and other friends who recognized the real need for a Center for Jewish Life on campus,” then Duke President Nannerl (“Nan”) O. Keohane shared at the dedication. “This magnificent building provides a place for Jewish students, faculty and staff to worship and get together for informal interaction. It is also available to, and being used by, all of our students as well as the members of the Durham community as a splendid gathering place.”

Today, the vision enumerated by President Keohane in her remarks is reality. The Freeman Center for Jewish Life is home to not only vibrant worship services, but also to on-campus kosher dining, ample spaces for students to gather, socialize, and study, and for the entire Duke community to come together for lectures, celebrations, and learning. We are indebted to the leaders who saw what Jewish Life at Duke could be, and who worked tirelessly to make that dream possible. 

Historical Images

  1. Invitation to the Dedication Ceremony of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, which took place on Sunday, October 24, 1999
  2. Duke Chronicle (student newspaper) article from October 1999 highlighting the opening of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life.
  3. The Freeman Family, including naming donors and Duke parents Brian (middle) and Harriet (right) Freeman, at the dedication and opening of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, 1999.

Were you a Duke student, parent, or community member during or shortly after the construction and opening of the Freeman Center? Do you have a memory or story you’re willing to share about your experience? We’d love to hear it – contact us!

Jewish Life Before the Freeman Center

Many alumni who attended Duke before the Freeman Center for Jewish Life provided a wonderful campus home know that Jewish life existed on campus for many years before its opening. One alumna shares her experience of what Jewish life was like at Duke in the 1950s. Read more!

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About Jewish Life at Duke

Jewish Life at Duke (JLD) is the hub for all things Jewish on Duke’s campus. An accredited Hillel as well as a department within Duke University’s Division of Student Affairs, Jewish Life at Duke is guided by a mission to empower Jewish students to learn and grow intellectually and spiritually; to inspire and nurture personal paths to Jewish identity; and to cultivate community and friendship. Comprising the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Rubenstein-Silvers Hillel, JLD takes a pluralistic approach to Judaism to ensure that all Jewish students, regardless of affiliation, are welcome and included.

100% of JLD’s operating budget comes from donations from alumni, parents, and friends.
Become a donor to Jewish Life at Duke today.