Once Hillel, Always Hillel

by Alanna Berman April 28, 2010


When Miriam ‘Mim’ Lincoff moved to San Diego in 1957, she had no idea what a celebrity she would become in certain crowds at San Diego State University. As campaign chair and a member of the Women’s Division of the United Jewish Federation from 1970-71, she saw the causes UJF’s money supported and noticed an area missing: Jewish college women. Thus began San Diego’s Hillel campus community and Lincoff’s reign as the ‘mother hen’ of Hillel.

“There was a need for a liaison between the campus communities, so I did it,” Lincoff, 82, says matter-of-factly.

Lincoff, along with other members of UJF, went back and forth between students and UJF leaders to organize the community.

“We collected a group of students at the JCC, and we wanted to sell them on hiring a rabbi for the program, but they said no,” Lincoff says. “Of course, we were surprised to hear this because we thought our idea was better.”

Students instead asked for a house where they could drop in to have programs with other Jewish students, but they were not interested in a ‘Hillel house.’

“At that time, Hillel was the word you didn’t speak,” Lincoff says. “To the students it felt old, and they wanted to have a new look at the way they did things.”

Students also asked for $20,000 for programming to fund both SDSU and UCSD campus events. But the first priority for UJF funding was Israel, and Hillel seemed to be at the bottom of the list.

“I asked the UJF where they thought funding would come from in the future, and it would be from these students, fostering their Jewish identities at this place, and I told them how important it was that we get the house and a director who could identify with the students,” Lincoff says.

According to Lincoff, she was met with more opposition when she proposed the house be for Jewish students from campuses besides SDSU.

“They asked me why they had to pay for students from other campuses, and I said we had to support all Jewish students as best we could, and since we had only one house, that was the way it should be,” Lincoff says.

The Federation finally conceded, buying the first Hillel house on Montezuma Avenue, two blocks from SDSU’s main campus. The Jewish Student Union was born, with Lincoff taking the reigns as Hillel of San Diego’s first president.

When looking for a director, UJF wanted someone who would hold students responsible for the house and the money they now had. They selected Jay Miller, a young assistant rabbi from Palm Springs. Rabbi Miller served as Hillel director for 13 years before Jackie Tolley, the current director at SDSU, took his place in 1978.

“Jay did a lot of the early work, and then we got Jackie, and I think she’s been a wonderful director,” Lincoff says.

Tolley, who has known Lincoff her entire Hillel career, says it’s Lincoff’s constant curiosity that makes her so well received by the students.

“Students adore Mim, and they just love when she comes around to Shabbat services, because she’s interested in what they have to say,” Tolley says. “She wants to know about their lives and takes a personal interest in the students. You can see that in their interactions at our events.”

Over the years, Hillel has grown out of the first Montezuma Avenue house to a larger one just steps away from SDSU’s main campus. With more than 4,000 students at SDSU and UCSD participating in Hillel events annually, the budget has grown too.

“The first time I heard about the amount of money Hillel generates now, it’s incredible,” Lincoff says. “The community had to become knowledgeable about what role Hillel can play, and I think the work they do now is incredible.”

Recently, SDSU’s Jewish Student Union has worked with the Muslim Student Association to increase tolerance in their communities, and the two groups recently served meals at San Diego’s Veterans Village together.

“I spend a lot of time wondering what the future is, and it’s wonderful to meet people who are part of the future,” Lincoff says of her continued involvement with the student group.

Lincoff has always been involved in Jewish life. In her first two years of college at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., one of the first things she did was organize a Hillel. She is now a charter member of that Hillel. After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, she met her husband, with whom she moved to San Diego in 1957 to build his ophthalmology practice in Chula Vista. She has two daughters, who both went to Hebrew school.

She started a Jewish community in Chula Vista with another mother from the school, holding meetings once a month.

“We used to go through the phone books looking for Jewish last names with Chula Vista phone numbers, and it got to the point that we didn’t have the space to accommodate the number of people coming to our meetings, so we found a church that was for sale and turned it into a synagogue,” Lincoff says.

Lincoff and her group became pioneers, establishing Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, a synagogue that became a staple in the Jewish community there.

“When Nixon came to San Diego once, we picketed the house he was staying in as part of my work with a Soviet Jewry group, and all the synagogue’s members were being frisked by the FBI agents, but that’s the kind of thing we did,” Lincoff says. “That’s what was important.”

Lincoff volunteered in the community and was active in Hadassah and B’nai Brith for years before helping to found the Bureau of Jewish Education, later the Agency for Jewish Education and the San Diego Jewish Academy, of which her daughter was a member of the charter class.

Lincoff still makes it a point to attend at least one Shabbat service at SDSU’s Hillel every month. It makes her happy to see Jewish students come together on Friday nights, she says, and she’s glad to still be a part of the organization after all these years.

Students appreciate her presence at Hillel programs, too.

“When I went to Hillel, Mim was always there with a big smile on her face, and she took the time to talk to all of the students while we had Shabbat dinner,” says Gia Strauss, SDSU graduate and former Hillel member.

Strauss graduated in May 2009 and was president of Alpha Epsilon Phi, a predominantly Jewish sorority. She regularly attended Hillel events when she was a student.

“You could tell that even after all her years of dedication she was still passionate about giving Jewish students a home away from home,” Strauss says.

Which is exactly what the original students on Lincoff’s informal advisory board wanted — a home for Jewish students while they were away at school.

“Hillel is important because Jewish kids meet other Jewish kids, they get the chance to go to Israel, and you hope that some permanent Jewish relationships come out of having an organization like this,” Lincoff says.

Ruth Kerman, an SDSU alumna who attended Hillel events regularly before holding several positions as a student, has recently returned to the SDSU office to work as program director under Jackie Tolley. She has had experiences with Lincoff as both a student and a Hillel professional.

“When I was a student, she used to come to almost every Shabbat, and she always asked about what we [the students] were doing, and how we were doing in school,” Kerman says.

Kerman says she met some of her best friends at Hillel and is honored to be able to return as a staff member to the place where she learned so much about being Jewish. While Lincoff doesn’t attend Shabbat services as regularly as she once did, she still holds a place in her heart for the organization she helped to found in San Diego.

“It’s important to make young people feel good about being Jewish in the face of all this animosity toward Jews, because there was a time when you didn’t tell anyone you were Jewish,” Lincoff says. “It’s wonderful to put a Magen David on the outside of the building and feel proud about it.”

While the Hillel house at SDSU does not have a Magen David outside, there is a mezuzah there, and inside, students can be Jewish however they see fit, and that’s the greatest thing for Lincoff.

“As I see it,” she says, “I’m the mother hen and that was the greatest egg I ever laid.”


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