Since the late 1950’s, the students of the Center for Jewish Living (CJL), formerly Young Israel of Cornell (YI), have been the mainstay of Cornell’s Jewish Community.
In the late 1950’s, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) teamed up with Jewish students at Cornell University looking for a place in which they could be more involved with the Jewish community, while still being able to lead an observant life. The result of their efforts was the foundation of a chapter of “Young Israel” at Cornell. In a school which prided itself on its secularity, these students, with the help of some Jewish professors, convinced officials at Cornell to lease them a building for the use of observant students and others with religious needs.
Young Israel of Cornell was intended to be a pilot program “the first in a series of such houses on college campuses” which would include a synagogue for the orthodox minyan, a modest dining hall and living accommodations. Despite NCYI’s initial intentions, no other Young Israel houses were established, and the Young Israel of Cornell remained the only one of its kind.
From the beginning, the membership of Young Israel of Cornell extended beyond those who actually resided at the 106 West Avenue facility to include others who wanted to be involved in this small but vibrant community. In the 1960s, Young Israel of Cornell admitted its first female members. In the 1970s, they admitted female residents as well.
Membership rose in the 1970s to include well over 50 students, but numbers began to drop sharply in the early 1980s, partially due to the decaying condition of the facility. On the verge of condemnation in the mid 80’s, the Young Israel house was saved when a wealthy alumnus teamed up members of the Ithaca Jewish community to renovate and refurbish the house. At the same time, NCYI teamed up with Cornell University and the donor to expand the facility and build a new dining hall that would be able to accommodate more students. (The old dining room was converted into a brand new synagogue which has served the orthodox minyan ever since.)
When the new dining hall was first opened, it was managed by Cornell University, while the house was managed by the donor. However, the University was not prepared to absorb the financial losses expected in the operation of a kosher dining program, and several years later, broke its contracts and stopped running the kosher dining program altogether.
While other community members attempted to step in and run the dining hall, the responsibility soon fell upon the students of Young Israel. Students took over the management of both the dining hall and the living facility. Friday Night Dinner went from a program that typically had 60-70 attendees to one that routinely broke 150. Attendance at Passover Seders and holiday meals likewise set record highs each year.
But amidst all these positive developments through the 1990s, there were changes occurring on campus and within the NCYI.
For various reasons, NCYI, which still held the ground lease of the property at 106 West Avenue wanted to pull out of the Cornell campus. These issues were made worse by the fact that at this time the University announced that all freshmen would be housed on North Campus by 2001, a very long walk from the Kosher Dining Hall and Young Israel House.
In 1998, there was a “Town Hall” style meeting held by the president of Hillel International and the president of Cornell University. At this meeting, a YI student confronted the two leaders about Cornell’s decision to move freshmen to north campus, extracting a promise from Cornell’s current president ensuring that the University would make hot kosher food would available on North Campus by 2001.
The next issue to be resolved was the absence of NCYI on campus. Students became very concerned that if NCYI removed itself from the equation, the living facility would become a Cornell-operated co-op, eliminating them from the management of it. To resolve this issue, a student traveled to New York City and, with the help of a couple of alumni, made an impassioned plea to the NCYI Board of Directors not to abandon Cornell’s Jewish community. The board agreed not to move forward and dissolve their contract with Cornell until the students were satisfied with the framework that would replace the existing one.
The Young Israel House was renamed the Center for Jewish Living to reflect its newfound independence. At the same time, a new organization, the Cornell Jewish Life Fund (CJLF or the CJL Fund), was established. CJLF, comprised of CJL and Young Israel alumni, served the dual purpose of holding the ground lease for the dining hall and living facility and supporting the students with financial and advisory help. The synagogue retained affiliation with NCYI so that the orthodox minyan could still call itself the Young Israel of Cornell if it wished.
Lastly, the dining issues had to be resolved. A new organization, the Foundation for Kosher Observance at Cornell, Inc. (FKO), was formed with representation from Cornell Hillel, Cornell Dining, the CJL and the CJLF. FKO was licensed to oversee all aspects of Cornell’s kosher dining program and Cornell University agreed to take responsibility for the operation of the kosher dining program at 106 West Avenue. In addition, the new dining facility built to accommodate freshmen on North Campus was designed with a kosher kiosk which could serve hot food that had been prepared at the Kosher Dining Hall.
This new dining program represented a major step forward on many levels- most significantly in that kosher food became a fully integrated part of Cornell’s meal plans; students no longer had to pay extra or separately for kosher food. Not only was Cornell the only University in North America to offer hot kosher lunches and dinners in two separate locations, but kosher sandwiches and other cold, wrapped food options were available in over 20 other campus locations.