W&L’s Hillel House Marks 10 Years as a Space Celebrating Jewish Life A decade after the building's dedication, W&L Hillel shines brighter than ever.
From its Jerusalem stone walls to its rich Jewish artwork, right down to the mezuzahs hung on every doorpost identifying it as a Jewish space, the Hillel House at W&L is a beautiful home for Jewish life and culture. But it is more than that; it is a home to many at W&L and in the Lexington community. The significance of the building lies not in its beauty, but in the warmth those who enter it experience — whether they are sharing a Shabbat dinner, gathering for services, grabbing a bagel at the E Café or listening to a guest speaker.
“Knowing there was going to be a center dedicated to helping me, as a Jew, feel welcome made me proud. The Hillel House was a very tangible step demonstrating that the university is committed to supporting diversity and inclusion on campus.”
~ Lev Raslin ’12
The ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 25, 2010, officially opened the building to the community and recognized the many people who made the 7,000 square-foot facility possible. More than 300 people made gifts and commitments to realize the $4 million project. Ten years later, W&L Hillel’s shine has not dulled. Dennis Cross, who served as vice president of university advancement from 2004 until August 2020, led the fundraising effort that made the building a reality. Cross currently serves as special advisor to the president until his retirement next month. “Hillel has become a core part of the campus,” he said. “It brings many people together for common interests and causes.”
“Despite being a small Jewish community, Hillel is really active and supports thriving Jewish life on campus,” Hillel Undergraduate Student Board President Sam Bluestone ’22 said. “I knew almost immediately during my first year at W&L that Hillel would be a home for me.” In his role as president, Bluestone helps plan and organize Hillel programming and represents the Jewish student body on committees that include members of the university administration. He works closely with Director of Jewish Life Maggie Shapiro Haskett.
“I think we’ve successfully fostered an inclusive community that creates a home for all Jewish students, regardless of their Jewish identity and how they want to engage with Jewish life on campus,” Bluestone said. “For some students that means coming to Shabbat every Friday night. For others it’s going on Hillel-sponsored trips over break. And for others, it’s simply a conversation about their Jewish identity over coffee. Students have the ability to meaningfully engage with their Judaism in their own unique way, and that is really special and unique to our community.”
Shapiro Haskett joined W&L as the director of Jewish life in 2017, and one of the aspects that attracted her to the role was the way in which W&L Hillel is woven into the fabric of the university and the surrounding community. She has worked to increase collaboration and partnerships with many other organizations, especially those which serve underrepresented students on campus. “We hold events such as a special Shabbat dinner with the Student Association for Black Unity (SABU), the Latino Student Organization (LSO), and LGBTQ+ student leaders,” Shapiro Haskett said. Additionally, W&L Hillel teams up with other religious life organizations for interfaith events and routinely partners with campus and community organizations for service projects.
Even in a global pandemic, Hillel has found ways to make connections. In response to COVID-19, Shapiro Haskett worked with student leaders and colleagues on creative programs that allow students to engage with one another. One option is a do-it-yourself Shabbat program. Students sign up to receive a “Shabba-tote” filled with homemade challah, Shabbat candles and few other goodies to help them host their own Shabbat dinners with roommates or close contacts in their own spaces, and Hillel even covers the cost of the meal. This fall Hillel introduced a new initiative, First-year Students of Hillel (FYSH), to connect incoming students with an upper-division student. It was designed to combat isolation and build community in a time that poses considerable challenges to social engagement, Shapiro Haskett said. The students meet in ways that follow current COVID-19 safety guidelines on campus.
For first-year student Julia Raskin of Chatham, New Jersey, the FYSH program has offered many benefits. “Being a part of FYSH helped me experience the supportive, cohesive community that makes W&L special despite these difficult times,” she said.
W&L Hillel also participated in MitzVote, a civic engagement challenge offered through Hillel International in which young people on college campuses across the country were encouraged to vote. W&L Hillel connected more than 10% of the student body with an online voter support platform and civic engagement resources.
“It wouldn’t be possible for me to do this alone,” Shapiro Haskett said. “I am lucky to have such a great community of student collaborators.”
Shapiro Haskett noted also that Hillel is a place on campus that has naturally fostered diversity and inclusion, where students step outside their typical social groups to come together. “Prejudice and white supremacy have not disappeared from our world, and we are not immune here in Lexington. But what’s different is that our Jewish community has resources and the full support of the broader W&L community,” she said. “We’re valued partners because W&L Hillel is known as a place of genuine inclusion.”
“The school has changed more culturally over the years than any other institution. W&L has moved so far forward, I am amazed at how progressive it has become.”
~ Jim Sagner ’62
While there have been Jewish students on campus for more than 100 years, the Jewish experience has changed — especially in the last 20 years since W&L’s affiliation with Hillel International gained a strong foothold. At one time, Jewish students were barred from joining most fraternities on campus. There were only two fraternities that accepted Jewish students, Zeta Beta Tau and Phi Epsilon Pi, both of which were founded to welcome Jewish men. According to Jim Sagner ’62, a ZBT, there was little organization and really no structure or support system in place for W&L’s Jewish students at that time. Occasionally, the fraternity brothers would travel to the synagogue in Staunton or Roanoke, but they never felt very welcome at those places of worship, he said. “The school has changed more culturally over the years than any other institution. W&L has moved so far forward, I am amazed at how progressive it has become,” Sagner said.
Andy Reibach ’87 agreed that Jewish programming at W&L has come a long way over the years. Reibach serves on W&L’s Hillel Advisory Board, an alumni group committed to helping Hillel thrive at W&L through philanthropy and student recruitment efforts. His daughter Rachel graduated from W&L in 2018, and his son Stephen graduated from VMI the same year. “I really enjoyed experiencing Hillel as a parent — I was very proud of their participation in their schools and in Hillel,” Reibach said. “These students are not being spoon-fed — whatever they want to do, they make it happen, and it is good for the Jewish community of the future.”
The story of Hillel at W&L, and how it became the successful program it is today, is an interesting one. Jewish enrollment at W&L peaked in 1961 and then steadily declined. Both Phi Epsilon Pi and Zeta Beta Tau had closed by the 1980s, and Jewish enrollment dropped to a low of about 1.5% in 2001. At the time, Professor Richard Marks was running a Hillel Association part time, but he needed help in order to achieve a more vibrant presence on campus. Marks approached Joan Robins, who had lived in Lexington since 1975, and asked for her help. She became the first director of Jewish life at W&L. “I am a nurse by profession, and when I got the call I was very surprised and a little intimidated,” Robins shared. While she is Jewish, she did not have an advanced degree in Jewish studies and wasn’t sure if she was the right person for the job. It turned out that she was, as she led the movement that brought visibility to Hillel and established the student organization that exists today.
Graham Frankel Smith ’02 served as the very first Hillel student president. While her father is Jewish, Smith is not. She got involved because she missed the culture and encouraged her friends to follow suit. “From the start, Hillel welcomed everyone, regardless of religious affiliation,” Smith said. “And when you open it up to everyone, you would be surprised who identifies with different groups.”
Cross explained that the Board of Trustees was concerned about the decrease in Jewish student enrollment and became invested in bringing those numbers up in 2007. He served on an ad-hoc committee with Robins to determine ways that W&L could improve enrollment. “We looked at several other Hillel Houses and campus programs including Duke, Vanderbilt and Amherst,” he said. The study made it clear that a centrally located, dedicated space would be a key factor in increasing enrollment.
With the Board of Trustees’ approval, Cross led the successful $4 million campaign, with many board members making significant gifts and fulfilling the final amount needed for the project during a dinner on campus.
Sagner, who was an initial leadership donor for Hillel House, was among the 200 people who attended the dedication ceremony in 2010. “The ribbon-cutting was very moving — I cried and I am happy to admit it,” he said.
For Robins, one of her favorite moments during the ceremony was when Graham Sheridan ’11 and President Ken Ruscio hung the mezuzah on the side entrance together. “At that emotional moment, President Ruscio demonstrated the administration’s enduring support of Hillel,” she said. “It felt remarkable; we were now truly part of the W&L community.”
Lev Raslin ’12 was also there and was co-president for Hillel’s student board that year. Now a business development manager at Amazon and a member of W&L Hillel’s Advisory Board, he recalled his excitement for the space. “Knowing there was going to be a center dedicated to helping me, as a Jew, feel welcome made me proud,” Raslin said. “The Hillel House was a very tangible step demonstrating that the university is committed to supporting diversity and inclusion on campus.”
A native New Yorker, Raslin said he felt like an outsider culturally at W&L until he met Robins. He, along with many others, have formed lasting friendships through their engagement with the Hillel program. For Raslin, the house symbolized being fully embraced by the W&L community. “It was very important to Jewish people. I think we are 0.2% of the world’s population, and it is easy for us to feel overlooked as a group,” he said. “By doing this, W&L showed me that it didn’t matter how small our group is — we are supported.”
Shapiro Haskett shared that she and Hillel’s student leaders are already hard at work on plans to engage the community both over Winter Break and during next term. “We’re teaming up with Student Activities to offer a conversation series called “Ask Big Questions” to connect students to their campus community during the two-month break,” she said. Also in the works are new versions of W&L Hillel’s traditional MLK Shabbat honoring Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the university’s week-long celebration in January as well as a new take on Tu b’Shevat, a holiday celebrating the natural rhythms of the land of Israel, in collaboration with the Native American Cohort. “Students are reaching out to W&L Hillel more than ever and it is a real gift to be able to confidently meet their needs, thanks to the support of all those in the community who shared the vision of rebuilding Jewish life on campus,” Shapiro Haskett said.
Plans are underway for an anniversary celebration of W&L’s Hillel House in fall 2021.