GWU expanding Jewish learning and experiences

The Gewirz Center today, current home of the GW Hillel Courtesy GW Hillel
The Gewirz Center today, current home of the GW Hillel
Courtesy GW Hillel

Plans are underway for expansion of campus life and academic options for Jewish students at George Washington University, with the announcement of a new Hillel building as well as a new graduate degree in experiential education and Jewish cultural arts.

The Gewirz Hillel Center will be torn down this summer and rebuilt as four-story building that will ideally open in early 2016 according to Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, executive director of the GW Hillel. During the interim, temporary space will be found on campus for Hillel.

“The project has been in the works for years,” he said.

He explained that after the initial steps were taken, the economic collapse of 2008 put the entire project on hold until recently, when it was re-examined. After looking at possible rebuilding and refurbishing ideas, the idea of an entirely new building took hold.

“We determined several years ago the current facility was in need of repairs very, very badly,” said Robert Fishman, director of GW Hillel’s Capital Campaign, who is working to fund the project and the former executive director of the Hillel. “Eventually we realized it needed to be rebuilt,” he said, adding that the design is still in the process of getting finalized.

“Leaders and donors said we could do more,” Kaiser-Blueth said. “We found it would be cheaper and give us more flexibility to tear it down and just rebuild.”

Since then, developments have progressed swiftly. After deciding that the building should be larger than the current space allows, Hillel leadership met with the university to explore options of combining resources.

“We approached the university to see if they would collaborate with us,” Fishman said. “They couldn’t support one denomination over any other but we found a way the university could use the space.”

By working with the university, ideas such as a planned kosher kitchen and food service area became more feasible.

“A kosher eating facility is sorely lacking in the community,” Fishman said. “It could be a great boon for us, attracting students and serving the community.”

The memorandum of understanding between the university and Hillel has the university leasing space, the top two floors, for at least 20 years, an expansion in some ways of previous space sharing. In addition to the direct benefits of partnering with the university in a way that will generate revenue, the agreement can also be used as a way to secure loans from banks to get the up-front money needed to construct the building thanks to the university’s good credit.

“It increases the scope of what we’re able to do,” Kaiser-Blueth said.

Nearly a third of GWU students are Jewish, which makes collaborations productive for the university, leading to a grant of nearly $1.5 million from the Jim Joseph Foundation to create the new experiential education and Jewish cultural arts graduate degree, jointly provided by the Graduate School of Education & Human Development and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

The program, which begins this summer, seeks to improve the quality of Jewish educators as well as encourage more people onto that path with its inclusion of ideas like working with others in the community and getting first-hand experience outside of the classroom. The foundation also supports the Jewish New Teacher Project, providing mentorship training and other methods of attracting and keeping quality Jewish educators.

“The foundation really inherited from our founder a focus on education,” said Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the foundation. He explained that the program is one of several ideas the foundation has found to be worth pursuing. “There are a tremendous number of good ideas being generated in the field.”

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