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W&L Trustees Meet Challenge to Complete Hillel House Funding

Mark Eaker, a 1969 graduate of Washington and Lee University and a member of its Board of Trustees, has made a $235,000 challenge gift to the University’s Hillel House project that was matched by fellow trustees in a matter of hours, permitting the project to move forward with groundbreaking in September.

Hillel House is a $4 million project that will create a physical home for Jewish life on the W&L campus. Plans are to locate it on Washington Street, just east of the R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church where the Howard House currently stands.

“I had been frustrated that we were close to finishing the funding for this project but had not been able to get it finished as quickly as I had hoped,” said Eaker.

At a reception prior to the Board’s dinner on May 8 in Lexington, Eaker told Dennis Cross, vice president for advancement, that he would provide half of the $470,000 that remained to be raised to complete the funding as a one-to-one challenge.

“I wanted this challenge to have a relatively short fuse and indicated to Dennis that I would like to have it met within two months,” said Eaker.

As it turned out, Eaker didn’t need to wait nearly that long.

Donald Childress, the rector of the W&L board who had committed $500,000 to the Hillel project in the fall, announced Eaker’s gift when the trustee dinner began. Before the apple dumplings were served for dessert, members of the board had committed the remaining $235,000 to complete the funding.

“It was truly remarkable,” Eaker said. “I had no idea that two of my fellow trustees were gathering the pledges as the dinner was going on.”

Indeed, Trustees Warren Stephens and Fred Cooper conferred and wound up getting pledges on the backs of trustees’ place cards.

“We are elated over the amazing generosity that Mark and his fellow trustees have displayed in order to help us get this very important project underway,” said W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio.

The fundraising for the Hillel project has included gifts and commitments from 170 individuals and couples. Childress’s gift had been issued as a challenge to raise the final $1 million. That had resulted in $530,000 before Eaker’s gift and the trustees’ response completed the Childress Challenge.

According to Joan Robins, director of W&L’s Hillel, current plans for the house feature a library, a lounge and conference spaces appropriate for studying and socializing, a kosher café, a large multi-purpose room that is flexible enough to be used for worship services, lectures, films, concerts and other celebrations, and offices for the current and planned Hillel staff. The large multi-purpose room will include an ark with a Torah.

“My strongest feeling about having done this is that this is not just a part of Washington and Lee, but it’s a gift to the Jewish community in Lexington,” said Eaker. “When I was student at W&L, there were only two Jews in Lexington other than students. I understand there are close to 50 Jewish families now, many of them on the W&L faculty. Those families must go to Roanoke, Staunton or Charlottesville for many religious activities.

“With the Hillel House, we will have a facility in Lexington where the Jewish families will be able to have services. In talking with people in the community, that is something that is very important to me.”

Eaker added that the entire campus community will be served by the new facility, something that Robins has emphasized in envisioning programming for the new Hillel House.

“We hope that all students, faculty and staff will enjoy delicious, healthy food in the café,” said Robins. “We want the multipurpose room to be used by all student groups for meetings, performances and even classes.”

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is an international organization that fosters Jewish social and cultural life on college campuses.  W&L is among a group of seven national liberal arts colleges included in a pilot initiative being undertaken by Hillel to enhance the experience for Jewish students on smaller campuses.