The sun-soaked second-floor room overlooks the crowds of students hustling to class on the street below. From above, acting as a peaceful watchtower, the newly completed Gewirz Center of Hillel at The George Washington University is a Jewish oasis for students.
“This is a community center infused with Jewish values,” said Adena Kirstein, executive director of GW Hillel.
After its grand opening on Sept. 30, the 21,000-square-foot facility is to welcome the university’s 3,000 Jewish students. With three stories filled with natural light and a soon-to-open kosher restaurant on the lower level, Hillel offers room to study, learn and hang out.
The $13.5 million building was designed by Powers Brown Architecture. It replaces Hillel’s Gewirz Center, which was built 1986 and torn down in 2019.
Donor Carl Gewirz, for whose family the building is named, said at the time that the old building “was just worn out.” It took six years from concept until construction of the new building began, Gewirz said, adding, “I’m looking forward to the freshness, the ambiance [and] the amenities,” he told WJW.
Gewirz didn’t live to see the new Gewirz Center open to the Jewish community; he died in May 2020. The Gewirz family is still connected to Hillel, Kirstein said.
Other donors are Mark Lerner, owner of the Nationals, and Louis Mayberg, a member of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of Washington Jewish Week.
GW Hillel occupies the lower level, floors one and two and the top level. The third and fourth floors are occupied by GW’s Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service.
The building boasts several workspaces, outdoor patios and an unbeatable view of the city. “The light and the openness [are] a reflection of how we want to interact with the city,” Kirstein said, adding that students flock to the George Washington University for its access to the country’s capital. GW Hillel needs to connect the students with the area as well.
“The building really tells that story — you can’t ignore that you’re in the middle of Washington, D.C.,” she said. “This is not a place to hide; it’s a place to think critically about community and how you interact with the world and how you take your Jewish values out into the world.”
Kirstein said one reason for the open layout is to emphasize that Jewish values need not start and stop at the GW Hillel doors.
GW Hillel is meant for students of all backgrounds, she said. “It should be a space that feels warm and wonderful for everyone,” she said. “More than anything, [GW Hillel] is a sense of belonging, it’s a sense of being seen, it’s like you can’t fall through the cracks. If students have that sense, they can do anything.”
And not just students. Kirstein said the Gewirz Center was conceived as a home for the entire Jewish community.
“When we dreamed of our new home, we hoped it would also be a space utilized and enjoyed by more than just our students. Each room has flexibility to host community events and celebrations, and we look forward to opening our kosher cafe to one and all, creating a vibrant new dining option in the heart of downtown D.C.”
Some of that space will be available to rent, including the two dining rooms, the Lerner Family Hall and the top-floor “penthouse” which, Kirstein added, has an excellent view of the Fourth of July fireworks.
The kosher restaurant will be open six days a week for students and the public. “We really hope it will be a bridge-builder for students, too,” Kirstein continued, “so that their non-Jewish friends would be just as happy to come eat here as a Jewish [friend] would.”
Kirstein said for her, the best part of the new building was seeing students proudly show off the new space during parents’ weekend recently. “It’s like this sense of ownership is being turned over to them,” she said. “To see them take pride … it’s so important.”
Kirstein said she and the GW Hillel staff are looking forward to helping students find their Jewish identity in and outside of the building. “That’s all we’re trying to achieve at Hillel — to think critically about how your Jewish values can do good.”
She emphasized that a sense of belonging is especially important for college students who are constantly navigating new territory in their lives. “There’s a power in saying ‘That is where I know I can belong. That is where I know I can be seen and welcomed.’”