In a day that was about bricks and mortar, Yuval Almog spoke about the compassion contained within the walls.
At the groundbreaking for the new Hillel House at the University of Alabama, Almog acknowledged that most of the 200 under the tent on a blazing afternoon Aug. 22 had no idea who he was, or why he was speaking at the ceremony.
A self-described high school dropout, Almog spoke of arriving in the United States at age 24 in 1974, after six years in the Israeli military as a pilot, veteran of two wars. With $1400 to his name, he set aside $1000 in case life in the States didn’t work out and he had to get back to Israel. With the rest, he arrived in Tuscaloosa and enrolled at Alabama “without knowing a word of English.”
Two and a half years later, Almog graduated with two degrees, and he credited the kindness of many in the university and Jewish communities with making it possible.
The math department “gave me an on-campus day job, and Coach Bryant gave me a night job. Zeta Beta Tau fed me. The Hillel House became my home,” he said.
Almog, who now lives in Minneapolis, went on to co-found Zoran Corporation, a digital signal processor company in Silicon Valley. In 1986 he became a venture capitalist, co-founder of the Coral Group that focuses on technology companies.
“The heart and soul of the Hillel House is still here,” he said. “I trust the new one will be built with the same compassion for others.”
The new Hillel is being built in an area that already houses several campus religious organizations. Don Siegal, co-chair of the Hillel Foundation, noted that the previous building was erected by a group of philanthropists throughout the state in the 1940s. Its location was directly across from Bryant-Denney Stadium, making it a prime target for acquisition as the stadium expanded.
Since the purchase, Hillel has been meeting at a temporary facility on Anna Avenue. The new Hillel, which is expected to be completed by Spring Break next year, is between the new Temple Emanu-El and the Paul “Bear” Bryant Museum.
Siegal praised University President Robert Witt for his support in procuring the on-campus spot for Temple Emanu-El and Hillel.
Under Witt’s leadership, the Jewish enrollment in Tuscaloosa has grown from 300 to 650, and participation at the Hillel holiday and Shabbat dinners is over 100.
A series of Jewish student recruitment events with Witt is being scheduled, with one upcoming in Atlanta.
Witt said “I know the presence of Temple Emanu-El and Hillel in the heart of our campus will reassure young Jewish students that they can continue to be active in their faith while they are at the University of Alabama, and will reassure their parents.”
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, Aaron Aronov Chair of Judaic Studies at Alabama and part-time rabbi for Temple Emanu-El, said “we are thrilled to share this property (with Hillel) and we thank Dr. Witt for his vision in bringing us together.” He noted that there are few universities where the Hillel and a local synagogue are in such proximity.
Rebecca Rothman, who not only is Hillel advisor but also the architect for the project, said “it’s really exciting we’ve reached this day, and construction starts tomorrow.”