Twenty-five years ago, Scott Brown decided that George Mason University students needed a center for Jewish life on the Fairfax campus. Back then, Brown was the associate director of what is now the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.
Brown knew that there was a club at the university, the Jewish Student Association, but he wanted to connect the university with Hillel, the international institution for campus Jewish life. A Hillel at George Mason meant a full-time professional on board to support Jewish students.
In 1984, Brown established Mason Hillel as a 501c3.
“He was the engine behind the idea,” said Na’ama Gold, Mason Hillel’s executive director. “He was the visionary.”
On Nov. 3, Mason Hillel celebrated its 25th anniversary. There, Gold introduced Brown, who became Mason Hillel’s first president. The organization honored him with an award of excellence of Jewish leadership.
“Students need a home. They need to belong,” Brown told 300 students, alumni and Jewish organization leaders.
He reflected on his own experiences growing up: “If they are called Jewboy or worse, they need to know how to respond … and have a safe community.”
Northern Virginia rabbis and local politicians were among those who enjoyed the buffet, bar and desserts.
Many attendees bid on items at the silent auction, like wine tasting for six, beeswax Chanukah candles and the prize items: Washington Nationals tickets, a signed Anthony Rendon baseball bat and a Washington Capitals game puck signed by Jakub Vrana.
“What’s really beautiful about tonight is there’s representation from almost every Jewish organization in the area,” said Hillel community board President Allon Shiff. “It’s beautiful to have that point of intersection.”
He said Mason Hillel provides students with a launch into the world, a sentiment many others echoed.
“[Being part of Hillel is] like having a lifetime of membership to a very special club,” said student board President Carly Epstein.
And though he’s a junior at rival George Washington University, rapper Noah Shufutinsky, known as Young Gravy, agreed that his Hillel experience has been a large part of discovering his Jewish identity.
“It really enriched my identity and my understanding of the role Judaism plays in my life,” Shufutinsky said.
Wearing a black sweater with “DIASPORA” written on the front in rainbow letters, Shufutinsky performed two original songs, “Yala” and “Diaspora.”
“I’m a proud part of the diaspora/In my heart I hold Jerusalem and Africa,” he rapped. “Check out the flag that I’m waving/Two blue stripes and a huge Star of David/Check out the flag that I’m waving/Keep shooting rockets but you never gon’ take it.”
His performance received a standing ovation. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, who survived last year’s fatal mass shooting at Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, spoke about how communities like Mason Hillel can combat anti-Semitism.
“Another way to see what happened last year is to say that Jews are merely an Other, and that there are others in the United States that are also being attacked for their Otherness,” Perlman said.
He said minority groups must stick together and support one another, as the Christians
and Muslims and Hindus in Pittsburgh supported his own grieving community last year.
“When you visit another person’s culture, it’s a way of creating brotherhood and sisterhood. It’s a way of exploring love and forgiveness,” he added. “And I know that George Mason [students] in a diverse university [are] often embattled because of who they are.”
He said he’s proud of the Jewish students at George Mason for creating bonds with each other in a period that has “not been a good 20 years for Jews” around the world.
“I believe that the future is in the youth of this country,” Perlman added. “If there’s any lesson to be learned from what I experienced last year, and the trauma that I still carry in my soul, it is that we must move forward and we must not be broken.”
Mason Hillel has two staff members. The organization created the Scott Brown Jewish Life and Learning Fund to raise $25,000 to hire a third professional, who will focus on Jewish education, to Hillel’s staff.
“I am deeply humbled to have helped GMU Hillel,” Brown said. “Thank you again for this