At the corner of Jamestown Road and Cary Street, the Jewish community at the College of William and Mary now has a dedicated home. The Shenkman Jewish Center opened its doors to the public the morning of Wednesday Nov. 14, only nine months after its groundbreaking ceremony in February of this year.
There was not much elbow room on the first floor of the two story, 3,000 square foot center, as a crowd of students, faculty, staff, administrators and community and religious leaders packed the Shenkman Jewish Center’s main room to watch the dedication ceremony. The center is named for the Shenkman family, and donations from Mark Shenkman and Rosalind Shenkman funded the project, with its associated seven-figure monetary cost.
Before the ribbon-cutting, College President Katherine Rowe, President and CEO of Hillel International Eric Fingerhut, Director of Hillel at William and Mary Rabbi Gershon Litt, outgoing Hillel President Alexina Haefner ’19 and Mark Shenkman all took to the podium to speak about the center’s importance for the Jewish community at the College. Former College President Taylor Reveley, who presided over the groundbreaking ceremony in February, was also present at the event.
Haefner said she was looking forward to using the space for Jewish students in her last semester at the College before she graduates in May, and that its impact will extend beyond her time as a student here.
“When I come back for Homecoming in years to come, I know that I will be coming back to a larger and more engaged community as a direct result of this gift,” Haefner said.
“It’s a space where Jews can gather for holidays and events, but also just to study and hang out, where friendships are made,” Haefner said. “And so, Jewish students who want to get more involved or meet other Jews at William and Mary, they’ll know exactly where to go,” Haefner said. “When I come back for Homecoming in years to come, I know that I will be coming back to a larger and more engaged community as a direct result of this gift.”
Mark Shenkman, in his remarks, emphasized that he hopes to see the Center brought to life with engaging students, impactful programs, memorable social events and kosher food. Additionally, Shenkman — echoing other remarks made at the event by others involved in the development of the Shenkman Jewish Center — said that he hopes its existence will attract more Jewish students to enroll at the College.
“Many of you may know that my dream was to matriculate at William and Mary,” Shenkman said. “It started when my parents visited Colonial Williamsburg when I was 10 years old. … Today, as an amateur historian and collector of documents and political artifacts connected to America’s Founding Fathers, strolling around this campus, reflecting on the great impact this college has had on American history is a unique and inspiring experience. One of our family’s philanthropic objectives is to ensure that our gifts will make a difference. I was always struck when I visited my son Greg at the College, how could the nation’s second-oldest college fail to have a visible Jewish presence?”
The Shenkman Jewish Center, in addition to being a longtime dream of Jewish students and community members, also opens its doors only a few weeks after the Oct. 27 anti-Semitic attack in a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the subsequent vigil held on campus Oct. 29. Litt’s remarks emphasized the symbolic timing of the ceremony.
“My friends, the Shenkman Jewish center is opening just a few weeks after the worst anti-Semitic act in Jewish history,” Litt said. “The night of the attack right after the Sabbath ended, the President of William and Mary Katherine Rowe was on the phone with me, offering the full resources of the institution to be used for whatever needed to happen next. That Monday afternoon President Rowe was on that lawn. I was on that lawn. University administration was on that lawn. And if you are a student here in the room today, you were probably also on that lawn.”
For Litt, the message that the opening of the Shenkman Jewish Center sends to the community is that the College is committed to religious diversity.
“The university’s commitment to this project shows all of us that William and Mary values unique opinion and practice and values religious diversity,” Litt said. “The Shenkman Jewish Center should stand as a shining example to all colleges and universities, institutions of higher learning. exemplifying the message of equality, diversity and religious freedom and acceptance.”
The Jewish students in the room reacted to the new building mostly with awe and excitement for what it will mean for Jewish students on campus in future years. Growing up in heavily Jewish area of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, outgoing Hillel Vice President Emily Lichtenstadter ’19 said that Judaism was an integral part of her life. At 17, she wanted to experience a different community and meet people from diverse backgrounds, which led her to the College. However, once she started her freshman year, Lichtenstadter said she realized the importance of finding her own Jewish community on campus, and became actively involved in Hillel.
When outgoing Hillel Israel Chair Sara Franklin-Gillette ’19 was a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland and deciding where she wanted to go to school, she ultimately decided that she liked the College enough to not consider its small Jewish community a disqualifying factor in attending, but, like Lichtenstadter, has been involved in Hillel since her first year on campus.
Franklin-Gillette and Lichtenstadter met at the Day For Admitted Students Hillel table their freshman year, and now both have executive positions in the organization. One thing that the center will allow, Franklin-Gillette said, is a more permanent space for gathering, especially around holy days. The first floor includes a large main room, a study room and a kosher kitchen. On the second floor, there is a meeting room and an office space for Litt and future rabbis on campus.
For Lichtenstadter, the Shenkman Jewish Center is the culmination of everything she hoped she would see in a Jewish community on campus in her time at the College.
“I think it’s an unbelievable thing that this has happened to our community,” Lichtenstadter said. “We’re also grateful for the Shenkman family and for all the support that we’ve gotten from the community as a whole. I think it’s going to be the start of something big. It’s the start of elevating Jewish presence on campus, and I think that’s super important.”
Franklin-Gillette said that constantly having to go to the scheduling office to book rooms for meetings and events and not having a designated kosher kitchen to prepare food were issues Hillel has dealt with in her time here. The kitchen, equipped with two dishwashers and two refrigerators, allows for kosher food preparation, which requires the separation of milk and meat.
“It’s definitely going to bring more students to the school because anybody that keeps kosher couldn’t come here before,” Franklin-Gillette said.
“It’s definitely going to bring more students to the school because anybody that keeps kosher couldn’t come here before,” Franklin-Gillette said. “But now that there’s the kosher kitchen, that’s not going to deter people.”
Not only that, but the turnout and pomp and circumstance of the dedication ceremony itself carried weight for Hillel member like Franklin-Gillette in the room.
“It really means a lot, that Katherine Rowe and Reveley and so many people from the school came, because it shows that they really support our community,” Franklin-Gillette said. “It’s similar to the vigil a few weeks ago, just that so many people showed up, that I didn’t expect to come. It’s kind of a bit of the same feeling. I’m seeing how many people support us as a community that I didn’t know.”