Between 52nd Street and Paseo Boulevard and 54th Street and Charlotte, Kerry Hollander grew up in a Catholic neighborhood in Kansas City — though her life and home were centered around Judaism, and the synagogue was just 20 blocks away.
Hollander’s sense of Jewish identity began in the bottom level of a two-bedroom duplex that housed six people. There, her childhood consisted of Jewish rituals, Friday night Sabbath dinners and Hebrew school — the beginnings of a life cycle permeated by Judaism.
Now, decades later and 125 miles away, Hollander still centers her life around Judaism as the executive director at the Hillel Foundation, MU’s Jewish student center and part of a national network of campus centers. Hollander, 58, said she feels tremendous responsibility toward keeping the Jewish identity alive among students.
She first came to MU and Columbia in 1963 — a turning point in her life when she decided to go to college away from home. She wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Her father had not wanted her to leave home because, in the neighborhood in which she grew up, young women were supposed to stay with their families until marriage. Hollander was the first woman in her family to pursue a college degree.
In her first year at school, she met her future husband, Ed Hollander. In 1967, they were married in Kansas City and then moved to St. Louis, where she taught school for a number of years, until they started a family. In 1975, they returned to Columbia with three children.
At the time of the Hollanders’ move, the youngest child was 1. Hollander said she needed something to do with herself. Her former Jewish sorority, Alpha Epsilon Phi, needed an adviser, so she assumed the role.
Then in 1980, Hollander volunteered for the Hillel advisory board as the representative of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s group. Three years later, she became president of the board and in 1984 began working for Hillel, no longer a volunteer. She went full time in 1986 as program director and, in the fall of 1997, she became director.
Hillel was founded in 1923 by Rabbi Hillel Hazaken at the University of Illinois to provide religious, social, cultural and educational opportunities for Jewish students — who at that time were mostly men. In 1947, MU’s Hillel was founded, but since the late 1920s there has been an organized Jewish advisership on campus.
Hollander works as the executive director but has also taken on student programming – a job and a half. However, Hillel is financially restricted because the Congregation Beth Shalom has moved out of the Hillel Center and into a new building on Green Meadows Road, so Hollander was not able to hire additional personnel. She is also the chairwoman of the Association of Campus Religious Advisers and serves on two committees: the Task Force for Minority Recruitment and Retention and the MU Council on Violence Against Women.
“We have a fantastic group of students this year who have really jumped right in and made the programming issues their own issues,” Hollander said. “But we don’t have enough money to actually provide them with some of the dynamic programming that we could have.”
Responsibility to the future
The lack of funds doesn’t seem to bother the students active in Hillel, who appreciate time spent with fellow Jews and Friday night Sabbath dinners — in their minds, the best meal of the week. To the students, Hollander is like everyone’s Jewish mother from home, as MU freshman Amanda Rainey described her.
“She just makes us feel comfortable and loved and welcomed and, I mean, she loves you when you walk in the door,” senior Mara Silver said. “When I was an underclassman, I found that a lot of people had never met a Jewish person in their entire lives, and they would ask me lots of questions and I could answer a lot of them, but there were many that I couldn’t, so Kerry and the library here provided a good resource.”
Sophomore Mike Jolly appreciates having a Hillel on campus to bring back a sense of religion, community and the continuation of traditions in daily life.
The latest big event to celebrate tradition was “Shabbatukah, Shabbatukah, it almost rhymes with Hanukah,” a farewell for seniors, a board appreciation evening, and an early Hanukah celebration, held on Dec. 12. This year Hanukah falls on Friday, the day after most students return home for winter break.
By far, the best part of Hollander’s job is being with the students, she said.
“They are the future of the Jewish community, and I feel a tremendous responsibility toward making certain that they have the opportunity to explore and enhance their Jewish identity while they’re here on campus,” Hollander said. “These four or five or six years, depending on how long they are here, are too important to lose touch with their religious backgrounds.”
Hillel reaches about 10 percent of the estimated 600 Jewish student population on campus, which is about 2 percent of MU’s student body. But Hollander knows many more than that because she has been here for so long.
Living her faith
Phoebe Goodman has been a friend of Hollander’s for about 20 years, and Hollander considers her a role model in how to behave as a woman and a Jew. Goodman says Hollander’s work has affected her family and is greatly respected in the community.
“My relationship with her is a very close one,” Goodman said. “I’ve watched her family grow, and I’ve watched her mature and grow into a very important person to more than her family. As she grew with her position at Hillel and her children were growing, they not only grew as every other teenager, but they were active Jewishly on campus as well as in their family life.”
Whether she is shopping for Sabbath, cleaning the dishes or talking one-on-one with a student, Hollander is living her faith. It is important to her to lead an ethical life by participating in community service, reaching out to students on campus and treating other people she meets fairly and justly.
“Jewish identity is different things to different people,” Hollander said. “Judaism is a religion of behavior, not of belief, so we’re taught to do certain things and behave in a certain way as an ethical lifestyle – if a strong faith in God comes out of that, that’s a plus. You can teach a person how to live Jewishly, but you can’t force that person to believe in God.”