The University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg was founded in 1908. In the following century, student centers for the school’s Baptists, Catholics, Methodists and Lutherans opened. Now the public university’s estimated 200 Jewish students have their own center on campus.
The two-story, 9,800-square-foot Maxine and Carl Silver Hillel Center includes a kosher cafe with a commercial kitchen, a lecture hall/multi-purpose room for events and religious services, a student lounge with couches and a TV, office space and an apartment for guest speakers, according to Hillel campus director Rabbi Menachem Sherman.
The facility, with Jeffersonian architecture matching the rest of the buildings on campus, faces the University Center and is next door to the Baptist Student Union. The site was previously occupied by a house that was demolished to make way for the center. Construction on the reported $5 million building finished last spring and a mezuzah dedication ceremony was held on Oct. 27.
“I already love it,” said Rachel Benoudiz, a senior and president of the university’s Jewish Student Association. “It’s absolutely gorgeous, and the building is in the best location it could be off campus. And I’m really excited.”
University President Troy Paino said the center was “long overdue” and that “it’s going to be not only an amazing resource for Mary Washington, but an amazing resource for the Jewish community more broadly, which I think they desperately need as it continues to grow in this part of Virginia.”
Sherman began work at Hillel in March. He said the facility has seen limited use, due to the pandemic. Only 10 people or fewer are allowed inside at a time.
Despite the restriction, students have been signing up to use the center as either a study space or a place to sit while attending virtual classes.
By far, the most popular feature of the multi-million-dollar center is its espresso machine. Benoudiz said she stops by the building a couple times a week just to make herself a cappuccino.
“Some students are really attracted to having a space where they know everyone and they feel welcome,” Sherman said. “And it really becomes that home away from home away from home, in college experience.“
Mary Washington University was named for George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington. The school is home to about 4,400 undergraduate students.
Sherman estimated that about 40 of the school’s Jewish students participate in Hillel programs. He believes the presence of the Hillel center will attract additional students to the university.
Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International, said there’s a positive correlation between the establishment of a new Hillel program or building on campus and the growth of that school’s Jewish student population.
“I would not be surprised if we saw a tripling of the Jewish student population [at UMW],” Lehman said.
The building project was initiated by Larry Silver, a real estate developer who grew up in Fredericksburg. The center is named in honor of his parents. He first approached the school with the idea for the center in 2016 and agreed to fund it through his nonprofit, Silver Foundation, Paino said.