As her 95th birthday approaches, Yetta Chaiken reflects on her life as a UD student, a teacher, and a Jewish woman. Her friends and colleagues recognize her for her kind spirit, loyalty to UD, and unwavering commitment to Hillel.
Born in 1922 and growing up during the height of World War II, Yetta says an “anti-Jewish sentiment” was felt throughout the world—especially in Wilmington, Delaware, where she was raised. Fortunately, Yetta says she was oblivious to the rampant anti-Semitism of the time. Her parents immigrated from the Ukraine to the U.S. at the turn of the century and were determined to make sure their children would have a better life.
During a time in which men went to college and women became secretaries, Yetta’s father encouraged her to take the academic route and go to college. Sure enough, Yetta became a Blue Hen and majored in history. She remembers back to her commute from Wilmington to Newark with five other girls, where the road was a single lane and had only one traffic light. At the time UD had a college for women on South campus, which was separate from the men’s college. Not only were the men and women separated, but the Jewish students stayed separate as well. Yetta’s friends were all Jewish and there were several “Jewish tables” in the cafeteria, but she was not bothered by this. This was simply the way things were, she said. Jews were treated poorly, so they stuck together.
Yetta went on to become a teacher at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington. The injustices of being a woman became clearer to her during that time. A female teacher in the science department, she remembers being given a smaller salary than the men in the same department. Unwilling to bend to the rules of society, Yetta became active in the women’s movement and the League of Women Voters. At Mount Pleasant, she taught the first course about the history and culture of women, and called it “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” When she taught at Warner Junior High School, the difficulty of being both a woman and a Jewish person fused together. While teaching the American Revolution, she came up with the idea of borrowing artifacts from the Delaware History Museum to bring into class. Rather than praising her creativity, the other teachers ridiculed her because she was Jewish.
Nevertheless, Yetta never let anyone stop her from doing what she wanted. One of her proudest moments is when she helped turn the Hillel, which once was located above the 5 & 10 on Main Street, into what it is today: the Kristol Center for Jewish Life. The family that owned the 5 & 10 was Jewish and therefore allowed Hillel to use their space to meet, but the Jewish community on campus wanted a space of their own. Hillel’s board desperately needed funds to build the center. It was after Yetta ran into Dan Kristol, whose late father had recently passed, that she suggested he name the Hillel building in his memory.
Yetta and her late husband, Frank, were dedicated to supporting Jewish life at UD. Not only did they play a huge role in getting the space for Hillel, but they also endowed the Jewish Studies department at UD. Jay Halio, past interim director of the Jewish Studies department, praises Yetta for expanding the program because it has strengthened Jewish life at UD and allows both Jewish and non-Jewish students to learn more about Judaism.
Yetta’s impact on the UD campus is apparent when looking at the two buildings, the Kristol Center and The Frank and Yetta Chaiken Center of Jewish Studies on West Delaware Ave. These two lively buildings represent Yetta’s huge influence in building the Jewish community here on campus. Even though Yetta has done so much for the Jewish community, she remains humble and insists that maintaining these centers is not a one woman show, especially since she lives a very busy life, even at the age of 94. In fact, she says she has lived the best life of anybody. She takes classes every week and is deeply interested in learning about space. She is blown away by the discoveries that have been made in her lifetime and encourages everyone to continue learning, because she says, it is the most important tool we have.
Executive Director of Hillel and longtime friend Donna Schwartz, celebrates Yetta’s upcoming 95th birthday by admiring her everlasting brilliance, wit, and superior knowledge of wine and chocolate. “So many things are because of her,” says Schwartz. Dan Kristol, a member of Hillel’s Board of Directors, agrees, acknowledging Yetta’s incredible leadership, support, and inspiration.
Yetta’s life reminds us that our lives are what we make of it. “Most people lead lives of quiet desperation,” she quotes Thoreau, but Yetta did not censor herself for anyone. 95 years later, she leads a life of vibrant optimism. Happy birthday, Yetta!
The UD Hillel Board of Directors and Staff are celebrating Yetta’s commitment to UD Hillel and her 95th birthday at their End of Year Celebration on Monday, May 15th at 7:00pm at the Kristol Center for Jewish Life. RSVP at udhillel.org/letscelebrate