‘Time to face the inevitable’

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Students, alumni and others socialize during the April 3 get-together at which the new GW Hillel building was discussed. Photo by GW Hillel
Students, alumni and others socialize during the April 3 get-together at which the new GW Hillel building was discussed. Photo by GW Hillel

With a mix of excitement and nostalgia, the George Washington University Hillel said goodbye to its worn but beloved building.

During the event, held April 3, members of the staff and board briefed attendees on their plans for the new building — narrating a slideshow of architectural renderings showing a spacious, modern building, while answering questions.


“One of the concepts that we are planning is that we want this building to communicate Jewish values,” Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth, executive director of GW Hillel, told attendees. “We didn’t want them to just throw on Jewish stars and call this a Jewish center.”

Besides the welcoming appearance of the proposed building, it will have bronze tiles inscribed with the words pshat and drash, Hebrew for the literal meaning of a biblical verse and its underlying significance, respectively.

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The approximately $13 million building will be four stories tall and will include space for religious services and events currently housed in the deteriorating Gewirz Hillel Center. It will also feature a rooftop green space and a kosher cafeteria.

Capital campaign director and former GW Hillel executive director Robert Fishman said that the idea for a new building came from plans he and GW Hillel board president Louis Mayberg made to renovate the Gewirz Center in 2008. (Mayberg is a member of the Washington Jewish Week ownership group.)


As the nation’s economy collapsed that year, Fishman and Mayberg were forced to put their plans on hold. Fishman said they realized that they needed to invest in a new building rather than restore the Gewirz Center, an imposing red brick fortress dominating the corner of H and 23rd streets in Northwest D.C.

“It was a place to protect people and not necessarily welcome them,” Fishman said of the center that was built in 1987, “and we realized that the difference between students then and students today was not only technology, but a sense of needing a place that not only welcomes them and is not only inviting for them, but also is giving them what they need to do the things that are important for them in their academic life, social life and Jewish life.”
Among tables of hors d’oeuvres, bottles of kosher wine and even entertainment provided by a trombone-sousaphone duet playing arrangements of popular hits, some 60 students, alumni, board members and supporters mingled in the building’s main room, which is dominated by a large pit area with neon-colored seating.

“It should really look physically and act like a hub for community and other activities,” said Dan Rosenberg, president of the Jewish Student Association at GW. “I think that this building no longer fulfills that function and it’s time to move on.”

Rosenberg believes that the new building will serve an essential role in attracting inactive Jewish students on campus — 3,000 of 10,000 undergraduate students. If all goes
according to plan, the new building will open to students in January 2016.

Hannah Schaeffer, a sophomore and Shabbat and spirituality coordinator at GW Hillel, expressed apprehension in parting with the building she spends time in every day —
despite the sagging ceiling tiles, stained and ripped carpets, and mold that gives the building an abandoned appearance.

“I’m ready for something revamped and exciting, but I want to spend time in the pit every day next year, so it’ll be different. I’m sure that building will also feel like home, but in the meantime I’m just nervous for where Shabbat will be and if it will be the same kind of spirituality that exists now,” she said. “[But] this building needs to be replaced so it’s time to face the inevitable and do it.”

Demolition for the Gewirz Center is expected in early fall, followed by a groundbreaking ceremony for members of the school administration, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Hillel International and others.

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