Hillel Center serves as a safe space for Jewish students

Published February 10, 2021, University of Mary Washington Weekly Ringer

by Jean Mondoro and Charlotte Campbell

Staff Writers

The new Maxine and Carl D. Silver Hillel Center opened in Oct. 2020. Though the opening was relatively subtle, this safe space has still managed to have an impact on Jewish students at UMW. 

“Hillel’s mission is to enrich the lives of students so that they may enrich the lives of their communities and the world,” said Rabbi Menachem Sherman.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, this newly established Jewish community has already begun making a difference in the lives of UMW students.  Grace Bauman, a sophomore sociology major, visits the Hillel Center often.

“I love it so much,” she said.  “I can go to the cafe area or the big room used for services to study or sit outside.”

To other students, the Hillel Center is a safe space on campus.

“With the Hillel, I know that I always have a safe, reliable space on campus,” said freshman Logan Kurtz.  “Especially during a pandemic, it is important to know that there are people who care about you and support your success and well-being.”

Benjamin Siegel, a senior political science major, has also had a positive experience with the community.  

“Hillel has done an excellent job of enhancing the lives of Jewish students on campus,” he said.  “Finally having a space that provides Jewish students a place to study and socialize makes anybody’s day better.”

This impact on UMW students has been in preparation for the past few years.  Beginning in 2016, Larry Silver and his son Spencer led the Silver Foundation in a joint effort with Hillel International to provide students with the opportunity to engage in and celebrate their Jewish faith. 

“The Hillel will mean different things to different people,” Sherman said when asked about the purpose of the new community.  “Jewish students may come for the religious aspects or may come only for the social events.  Non-Jewish students may because they are interested in learning more about Judaism or because they have a friend in Hillel, or maybe just because they heard there is great Challah bread or chicken soup.”

A year later, in 2017, plans to begin work on this project were being made, gaining support from Jewish faculty members as well as the university itself.  The project has been in progress for roughly three years.

Now that the construction is completed, the community faces the challenges of the pandemic.

“Friday night dinner and services are typically the most engaging time for Jewish students on campuses across America, as students come together for a traditional Shabbat service followed by dinner,” Sherman said.  “This year, we have given out bags with some Shabbat food in them and have directed students towards Hillel International resources for prayer.”

The community has also offered casual gatherings such as the Tuesday Schmooze-day event, which gives students an opportunity for fellowship with the help of coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  

In the years to come, the Hillel Center hopes to provide a secure religious community for Jewish students at UMW, as well as form connections with high school students and invite them into the family.

“Our goals for the near term are to establish a home away from home for our students and provide quality programming for all interested people in our community to explore Judaism and forge connections,” said Rabbi Sherman.  “In the long term, we would love to see UMW increase the number of Jewish students on campus.”

Collaborations with other religious communities affiliated with the university may also be established.  

“We haven’t had any formal programs together yet,” Sherman said about these connections.  “But I imagine it won’t be long until there are some events that have interfaith dialogue which I am sure will yield some fantastic conversations.”

Even as this new community is just getting started, it has already made lasting impacts on UMW students.

“Hillel and staff have given me options when I was sure I had none, have made me feel heard when I have felt mute, and have reminded me that I am not alone in my journey to accomplishing the formidable yet necessary feat of earning my bachelor’s degree,” said freshman Haley Schnizter.  “My college experience so far has been thoroughly enriched by all the experiences I have had and friendships I’ve established through Hillel, and I look forward to the coming semester and all it entails.”

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