Then & Now Ellie Bold '15
Hillel's Passover Seder at Washington and Lee University attracted more than 100 students and community members, the largest number ever. In fact, the Seder was so well attended it had to be moved out of the three-year-old facility.
"I see a real awakening of Jewish life here because of Hillel and everything that was done to bring it into existence and everything that's being done to make it a vital force in the community," Professor Holt Merchant said.
Hillel is the center for Jewish life on campuses and in communities around the world. It seeks to create a welcoming environment and home for people of the Jewish faith to come together and celebrate their culture with all who want to be involved. The Hillel House at W&L opened in 2010 to revitalize the program.
Jewish faculty recruited Joan Robins in 2001 to help plan events and holidays for Jewish students on campus. Jewish enrollment was around one percent and despite having a Hillel organization on campus, faculty and staff worried about the lack of cultural and religious support for Jewish students. "We didn't have a place to be on campus," Robins said.
Robins and an ad hoc committee discovered that almost all W&L's peer institutions had an average Jewish enrollment of 10 percent. As alumni and community support for Hillel at W&L grew, Robins moved from volunteering with Hillel to being hired as its first advisor. She also spearheaded the campaign to build a Hillel House on campus.
"Joan Robins came and saw a need for Jewish students, yes, but for the university, too," Merchant said. Since the house opened in September 2010, Jewish enrollment has increased to four percent-W&L's overall student enrollment is just under 1,800 undergraduate students.
About half of the Jewish students on campus are active in Hillel, but many who aren't as involved come to one of the programs or events during the year. Jewish and non-Jewish students alike are welcome at every event, as are community members. "One of the goals from the very beginning was to make it a place for everybody," Robins said. "My favorite part of Hillel is the community," said Samantha Rosier '14, president of Hillel. "We have the Jewish community of Lexington come to some of our events, which is a wonderful feeling and brand new in Lexington."
On campus, Hillel is preparing to introduce an interfaith office on the second floor of the house. This past February, Hillel House co-hosted a super bowl party with W&L's Christian student organizations.
"Having only ever been to bar and bat mitzvahs, I had very little experience and knowledge of Jewish culture," said Maggie Weatherly '15, who attended the Passover Seder last month. "Passover was fascinating to witness coming from a different background, and despite that, I felt incredibly welcomed."
In addition to inviting all students and community members to Hillel events, the house was designed to expose visitors to traditional elements of Judaism. The main hallway has a Hebrew "Shalom" wall, a traditional hand washing station, a wall made of stone pieces from Jerusalem and a Mezuzah above each doorway. It also boasts a popular café, community kitchen, multipurpose room and study rooms. Brett Schwartz, Hillel Director, is easily available to answer visitors' questions, many of whom have come in to ask about what they've learned in Bible study. Schwartz said Hillel serves as the synagogue for the area. The Hillel House accommodates far more than Jewish holidays, programs and events. "The Hillel [House] has become one of the campus centers . . . the multipurpose room alone in the last year and a half has had over 1,700 programs," said Schwartz.
"Now we have a Jewish community that's real and growing and thriving," Merchant said.