Inspired by Elon, Sklut family seeks to inspire others

Elon trustee Eric Sklut and his wife, Lori, are leaders in supporting Jewish Life on Elon's campus.

By Hillary Zaken

Eric and Lori Sklut P’14 are passionate about helping create a better world.  Generous philanthropists and great supporters of Elon University, the Skluts want to inspire others to be the change they want to see – for themselves, and for their children.

When Eric and Lori Sklut first visited Elon University nearly a decade ago with their son Mason, who would become a member of Elon’s Class of 2014, the presence of a Hillel House was not the first thing they looked for. Instead, the family looked at the courses, the campus, the teacher-student ratio, and whether the academic program in the School of Communications was right for Mason.

“Mason wasn’t looking for the Jewish component when he chose Elon. He was looking for the best fit for him,” Eric Sklut remembers. “But we knew that it was important for Jewish students to know about Jewish life on campus.

“There are Elon families who have never been exposed to Jewish culture, Jewish people, or Jewish tradition. The more we can engage kids, who have an open mind, and let them learn about Israel, and Jewish tradition, the more accepting they will be, and the more accepting and better world it will be,” he said. 

Sklut, along with his wife, Lori, believes in the importance of a vibrant and pluralistic Jewish life on university campuses. When Mason started at Elon, Eric was already involved with helping to shape Jewish Studies and Jewish Life at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Charlotte, N.C.-based Sklut family foundation was focused on faith-based and educational philanthropy in the area.

As Sklut explains, Elon is a transformative place that has itself gone through an amazing change. From a small co-educational college founded by ministers, teaching the children of preachers and teachers, and hosting the “Fighting Christians” athletics moniker, to the premier national university for engaged learning and global education, with a leading-edge multifaith program, and the mythical Phoenix for athletic moniker, Elon is a place where things happen.

“For those who want to spend their philanthropic dollars, at Elon they can see how those dollars are put to use right away. And this is rewarding to every donor,” Sklut explains.

Elon University’s journey has been mirrored at Elon’s Hillel, which has grown by an astonishing 222 percent during the past decade. Much of this growth has been thanks to the Sklut family’s generosity and pioneering fundraising spirit, as well as a visionary team at the university, anchored by President Leo M. Lambert and former Hillel director Nancy Luberoff, whose leadership drove Jewish life on the campus to be recognized nationally for excellence in engagement.

In 2010, the university formed the Jewish Life Advisory Council, and Eric and Lori Sklut were named the first chairs of the parent board, which was tasked with helping support the creation of a vibrant Jewish life on Elon’s campus.

When Alison Morrison Shetlar, former dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, and her faculty began thinking about developing a Jewish Studies program in 2011, the Skluts approached Lambert to speak about the ways they could support Jewish Studies and Jewish life on Elon’s campus.

In Sklut’s own words, “we asked President Lambert to dream a little, and come to us with his vision,” but nobody – not even Eric and Lori – expected the speed with which that vision would unfold.

With the help of the Skluts, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Geoffrey Claussen was named the Lori and Eric Sklut Scholar in Jewish Studies to develop and lead an academic program. At the 2012 Elon Honors Convocation, Claussen and the Skluts were recognized and honored formally by the university.

As Sklut tells it, “Then-Dean Alison Morrison Shetlar was on the dais presenting honors and other awards in front of 4,000 parents and donors and then and there she spoke of Judaism, and Jewish life, and Jewish Studies, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Here we were, in a microcosm, at Elon University, and to hear the dean’s words about Jewish education, and Jewish Studies, was so very exciting to me.”

The second piece of the puzzle was Hillel.

In 2012, the Skluts approached Lambert about building a Hillel House. There was a potential location, but it would require an investment to renovate the house.

One night in December 2012, as the Skluts were driving home to Charlotte from Elon, they made what Eric calls a “selfish decision,” that would shape the growth of Jewish Life at Elon in a pivotal way.

“We figured if we tried to raise the money, it would be a few years, and Mason and his friends would have graduated. We wanted to find a way to speed things up so our son would benefit from a Hillel House on campus,” Sklut explained. “We told Leo we would commit to $250,000 if they started right away. And they did!  They started working immediately, so we promised that we would help raise the rest of the money. And that is how Hillel came to be. Only nine months later we cut the ribbon and we were up and running.”

Eric and Lori Sklut’s commitment to creating a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on the Elon campus, and their philanthropic leadership and inspirational giving are what made it possible for the university to move forward in supporting the growing Jewish life on campus. Their gifts, and those of other generous families and foundations, have created a home away from home on Elon’s campus for all Jewish students, a welcoming home filled with food and fun, enriched by Jewish tradition and holiday programming.

“We have an open house, and we invite people in, and we and tell them, ‘this is who we are and this is what we do!’ And of course, we start with food,” Eric Sklut says. “And so you get a handful of non-Jewish kids at Shabbat dinner, and then some Jewish kids go to a Christian service, and you open a conversation.”

Ensuring that Jewish life at Elon continues to grow and prosper is an ongoing challenge. Funding for social programming, for Rosh Hashanah dinner, for a bagel brunch, or simply for food to fill the fridge is largely dependent on the generosity of parents who, like Eric and Lori Sklut, want their children to have an enriching Jewish college experience.

Elon Hillel, under the new leadership of Interim Director Betsy Polk, encourages parents to support Jewish Life in any way they can. 

“Our mission is to continue to build a home that nurtures students, inspires them humanly and Jewishly, and prepares them for life beyond college,” says Polk. She invites parents to follow the lead of the Sklut family by investing in Hillel and its programs.

As Eric Sklut, who now sits on the University’s Board of Trustees, sees it, their generosity should inspire other parents to give: “I hope that all Jewish families participate, whether it is funding a bagel brunch or Fill the Fridge.”

Sklut continues: “I remember when we did our first challenge – it was at a bagel brunch in Mason’s second year at Elon. And we got up and talked about why supporting Hillel was important. And I had people come up to me, two-income families with one out of work, who were stretched to the limit paying for their kids in college, and they were telling me, ‘We are committed to supporting Hillel, we are committed to this,” and handing me a check for $180. And I knew they were already stretched, but they still did it. For us, it’s not the amount as much as the number of participants in the room. So the message got to those people, and that message needs to go out to all the Jewish parents.”