Few Jewish organizations have commanded my loyalty as the St. Louis Hillel, where as a med student I would worship on Shabbos morning, sometimes walking three miles in each direction through Forest Park, study on Sunday afternoon, call schedule permitting, to be followed by a generous sandwich at their weekly Kosher deli night, which attracted the local community as well. Their director, Rabbi James Diamond, z"l, became my Rav and we kept in touch after he relocated to Princeton. My first donation with money given to me by the Boston Court system for testifying as an intern went there, as did many subsequent to that.
Trips to St. Louis have been few since returning east after graduation. In 2007 I attended my alma mater's reunion which left me with a free Saturday. I bought a day pass for the Metrolink Transit with the intent of starting with shabbos morning where I once attended regularly. The train took me to the Skinker stop and I walked through the relatively uninhabited Washington University main campus to 6300 Forsyth only to find the building closed as the university had some sort of hiatus that October week. With my son graduating from Washington University, I returned to the campus for Commencement. After the proceedings concluded I elected to walk back to the Hillel building just a few blocks from the university Quadrangle, only to find it locked again, though this time with a few cars in the back lot. I could have rung the bell to be let in, and may have had I been alone but with family less eager to relive my old time, we moved on.
Just a few days later I had visited the Mizzou campus where they also had a Hillel, a much smaller enterprise, part of a multipurpose building. We just walked in, looked around, asked directions to the Six Columns and resumed our exploration of the campus.
As a college and medical student, the Hillels were open, welcoming places. My college Hillel even voted to become a Miklat or refuge for draft dodgers where people could just come in during usual business hours. In St. Louis, would just wander in, sometimes go to the living room to watch TV which I did not have in my apartment, sometimes take a text book into the library, eventually renamed in honor of my Rav, dividing my time between my medical studies and whatever was on the Hillel library shelf. Barriers to entering the building just weren't there and maybe they aren't on shabbos when people are expected to stroll in at various times for services.
Security needs have changed and Jewish organizations in particular can be targets of violent attack. Even in my college years, kids from the neighborhood would enter the sukkah and help themselves to the hanging produce as a snack. Yet the balance of keeping threats out while not impeding those who derive benefit from partaking of what is offered inside remains a challenge to the organizations' boards. How much of a barrier is too much. Despite my enduring fondness for St. Louis Hillel, even ringing the door bell to explain why I wanted to be let in with no guarantee that I would be let in exceeded what I was willing to do to relive what had been an essential element of my past.