Penn State Hillel Opens New Center for Jewish Life in Downtown State College –


Penn State Hillel held a grand opening event for the Gutterman Family Center for Jewish Life, 180 S. Garner St. in State College, on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. Photo by Geoff Rushton |
More than a decade in the making, a new Penn State Hillel center has opened its doors in downtown State College to usher in a new era of Jewish student life at the university.
Community members, students, staff, donors and dignitaries on Friday afternoon celebrated the opening of the Gutterman Family Center for Jewish Life. Located at 180 S. Garner St. and developed in conjunction The Maxxen high-rise building, the center will provide a new spiritual and cultural home serving the thousands of Jewish students at the University Park campus.
“This is a transformational era where the estimated 5,000 Jewish students at PSU can easily find social, cultural, religious and educational activities and resources,” Penn State senior Emily Rosen, Hillel campus engagement fellow and mentorship program president, said. “Located in the heart of downtown, it couldn’t be more convenient.
“One of the core principles of Judaism is welcoming the stranger. When you walk through the doors of the Gutterman Family Center, you are no longer a stranger. You have a place where you belong.”
Named for lead benefactors Nancy and Bernard Gutterman, who contributed $3 million to the project, the 15,000-square-foot center is about 10 times the size of Hillel’s space in the multi-faith Pasquerilla Spiritual Center on campus, which the organization will continue to use on a limited basis.
The center is located on the first two floors of the Beaver Avenue side of The Maxxen.
At its center on the first floor is an open and bright lobby with a monumental staircase and designed acoustically to enhance prayer and musical performances. A nearby study lounge is equipped with a flat screen TV, seating and semi-private “huddle pods.”
The first floor also includes a 900-square-foot Kosher kitchen, a dining room for large gatherings like weekly Shabbat dinners and meeting areas.
On the second floor are a wellness room, more huddle pods, a conference room, an outdoor terrace, rabbi and staff offices and the chapel, which houses Hillel’s Torah.
“Most importantly, the Gutterman Family Center is a warm and welcoming place to the thousands of Jewish students at Penn State, a place that inspires pride in their Jewish identity and where they can feel both seen and safe,” Penn State Hillel Executive Director Aaron Kaufman said.
When Kaufman arrived at Penn State 15 years, the organization was growing and already actively seeking a place where it could build a new center. In 2011, Penn State Hillel acquired a property along East Beaver Avenue that was formerly home to a Citizens Bank branch, adjacent to what was then the Garner Street Parking Lot.
Hillel went on to partner with the Friedman family, who owned the parking lot parcel, and real estate developer CA Ventures to incorporate the center into what would become a 12-story mixed-use building.
Developers broke ground on the new building in 2018 and it was largely completed in 2020, but work on the Gutterman Family Center continued into 2022.
“It hasn’t quite been 40 years of wandering in the desert, but it has taken some time to get here,” Kaufman joked.
Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi said the building’s “warm, loving, inviting” atmosphere is representative of Hillel’s place in the university community.
“Everywhere I have been, I’ve had the great fortune of watching what Hillel does for our students, and it’s no surprise that here, too, Hillel has been a model ecumenical partner,” Bendapudi said. “What I love here is the focus on students, of course, and the commitment to create a vibrant religious and cultural community for those who want to come and participate.
“This special place for community, for congregation and for celebration begins a new era for Jewish life at Penn State.”
Bendapudi added that Hillel is welcoming to people of all faiths and provides programs and events open to everyone.
State College Mayor Ezra Nanes, the borough’s first Jewish mayor, agreed, saying the center and its mission to help students “grow intellectually, spiritually and socially” can play an important role in the town and gown community.
“I think the Gutterman Family Center will be a nexus where campus and community can come together, celebrate Jewish life and all of our lives because all of us from every background matter and that is fundamental to who we are in this community,” Nanes said.
Nearly every speaker at Friday’s event noted the importance of what the impressive new building represents.
The sounds of students baking in the kitchen or chatting on the staircase, Rabbi Rob Gleisser leading prayer and education and the smells of Shabbat dinner are reminders of Hillel’s mission, said Jill Epstein, chair of Penn State Hillel’s Board of Directors.
“Hillel is where Jewish students, young adults, learn and decide to be Jewish on their own terms, how to be good global citizens and to begin their journey to Jewish leadership,” Epstein said. “Jewish leadership starts here but it doesn’t end here. Through the Gutterman Family Center we will be able to further our mission to enrich the lives of Jewish students at Penn State so that they may enrich Jewish people around the world.”
The new center also marked a celebratory occasion for Hillel International which engages 140,000 students at 850 campuses worldwide.
Hillel International President and CEO Adam Lehman, who was joined at the event by board Chair Skip Vichness, said Penn State’s Hillel organization is “an incubator of future Jewish leadership” and a leader in innovation for being relevant to modern students.
“May this unbelievable facility be the container in which tens of thousands of Nittany Lions have their souls imprinted, have their lives impacted and their futures shaped in a way where they will not only bring so much pride and joy and vitality to the Jewish future, but will bring so much from Penn State specifically to that mission,” Lehman said.
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