GW Hillel Grand Opening Remarks

shared on 9.30.21 at Grand Opening Event for GW Hillel’s new home at 2300 H Street

Good evening – I’m Adena Kirstein, Executive Director of GW Hillel, and I can’t tell you how overwhelmingly happy  I am to be with you tonight.

About a year ago, my children received a new book through the PJ Library program called “Hillel Builds a House.”  For obvious reasons, the title caught my attention and I was hooked even further when we began to read the story.

Hillel, the young main character, LOVES building houses.  On each Jewish holiday, he attempts to do so.  For Chanukah, he builds a fort-like house in his room, but his mother puts the kibosh on it when he tries to light a menorah inside.  No house for you, Hillel!  He tries building a costume house for Purim but as he begins to walk around the neighborhood, poor Hillel gets rained on and his house disintegrates. Failed again, Hillel!  On he goes and each holiday, he meets a new challenge.  As you might imagine, this was a struggle I could easily relate to.  I’ve been on-campus now for eleven years and I too, often met disappointment as my Hillel tried to build it’s own house.  Generations of students and GW families heard Rob Fishman, Yoni Kaiser-blueth, and I promise ‘it’s coming soon!’  We’re almost there!  And another year would go by, after many road blocks, and we still felt we hadn’t even begun to climb to the mountaintop.

But – I’m happy to report that in the book, Hillel Builds a House, the little boy finally got his happy ending.  After a full year of Jewish holidays, Hillel the boy finally found the holiday meant for him – Sukkot.  As many of you know, Sukkot is a holiday meant for builders as Jews across the globe build temporary dwellings in their outdoor spaces.  Hillel the boy built his sukkah and all was well with the world.

My friends and family know I believe deeply in all things bashert – in yiddish, things that are meant to be.  Signs of goodness and holiness are all around, if only we are willing to pay attention.  Little did I know, when I read this book to my children 12 months ago, that here I would stand before you, the day after the Sukkot holiday, celebrating a moment I still can’t quite fully grasp.  During Sukkot, we leave our permanent homes and take our meals outside in our sukkahs, sitting with our loved ones, welcoming guests, and reminding ourselves – with bricks and mortar in site – of what is truly important and permanent, and what is in fact, temporary after all.  

Tonight, with Jewish communities across the globe, we return inside.  Here we stand in our permanent structure, grateful, enriched by our tradition, blessed by our community, better for the process of building and thinking and working together.  Central casting couldn’t have scripted it any better.

As Louis will share, the journey to get here was not easy.  But I tell my students all of the time that we learn more deeply from discomfort than from smooth sailing.  My heart has been overwhelmed these last weeks, watching this space come to life.  I am the most privileged of this bunch, as I’ve gotten a front row seat to watch what happens when hard work, resilience, and a fierce belief in our community from so many of you in this room all comes together, as it has in these past weeks since we’ve opened our doors.  

I am certain that each person in this room, whether through your gift of time or dollars to help us mark this moment, is worthy of a long and detailed thank you.  So many of you have been my teachers on concrete and fundraising, on negotiation and on patience.  This community is better and stronger because of the gifts you have given and will, G/d willing, continue to give.  But I did want to take a few brief moments to share particular words on those who power this organization forward on a daily basis.

First, my Hillel director colleagues are consistently envious of the relationship I share with so many at this university.  President LeBlanc regularly extends his support, opens his home, and intuitively understands the value Hillel can add to the fabric of university life.  His Development & Alumni Relations team has – and continues – to work to make Hillel a compelling giving opportunity for donors, often schooling themselves in Jewish holidays and practices as they go.  The chief example of this spirit is embodied by Meredith Westerlund, a woman who helped build this building with every email, phone call, and visit she pursued with so many of you in this room.  Although she has formally left the university, her impact is felt here at Hillel every day.  Every dollar I ever raise for the rest of my career will be rooted in all that Meredith taught me.

The Hillel movement is one I deeply believe in, and it all starts with colleagues who nourish one another, collaborate, and strive towards excellence.  I’m so thankful that the room is filled with friends from Hillel International, led by Adam Lehman, and filled with my beloved colleagues, past and present, who have thought creatively, shlepped endlessly, and carried the core of our work while this new home got built.  Our students are enriched every day because of your collective hard work.

Most of you will never know the name Peter Chew, but this building would not be standing without him.  While we have very different job titles – he as Project Manager for this building project, and mine as Hillel Director – we share in common that any given day can throw us curveballs in the afternoon that we never could have conceived of that morning.  He is a community organizer, an architect, a foreman, an artist, and most importantly – a friend.  Throughout this process, he told me when to take a deep breath and when it was time to call in the troops.  I’m insanely thankful this project brought his sweet menschy soul into our collective GW Hillel lives.

When I transitioned from Assistant Director to Executive Director a few years ago, one of my highest priorities was our board.  I wanted to make sure they felt their time was valued, needed, and harnessed for the good of this community.  I could write a chapter on each of them, on the roles they have played and the roles they have signed-on for, on the care and concern they exhibit for our students without often knowing their names.  They have given their time, their dollars, their text check-ins, their strengths and I am grateful every day for the models they each embody as unique, soulful Jewish leaders.

Particularly on this project, three of them have been our cheerleaders, thought partners, benefactors, and visionaries in seeing this project through.  

Mark Lerner has made himself available at a moment’s notice to share his wisdom on a list of topics too long to count.  He pushed me to make smart decisions for the long-run, to foresee what actually happens when we open our doors for use, and to see the job through even when I think all has been said and done.  I’m thankful for his accessibility, his devotion, for the generosity of the Lerner family, and for the bookends of our conversations that always leave me with a new TV show recommendation or baseball tip to impress my brothers with.  

Each day I walk into this building, I think of Carl Gewirz.  I miss his phone calls, I miss him scrutinizing architectural plans in his sunroom, and I miss his creativity.  His presence is laced throughout the nooks and crannies of this building, his careful attention to details still supporting this community in ways our students will never know.  While his parents sowed the original seeds of this organization, he was the gardener who helped us to flower and grow.  To have his wife Nancy here and helping us host this special evening is incredibly meaningful.  I’m so thankful to her, to Carl’s siblings Bernie and Norma, to my beloved board member and Carl’s niece Sally, and to the extended Gewirz family for the love, care, and concern they continue to show towards the GW Hillel community.

And last but never least, there are not enough words of gratitude to express my appreciation to Louis Mayberg.  I’ve now been in Louis’s orbit for eleven years and each year, I have seen how he and his wife Manette have grown more thoughtful, smart, and generous in their philanthropy.  Simply put, I believe they are modeling through the Mayberg Foundation what it means to give.  They give with gusto, putting their Jewish values into action in a way that fills me with wonder.  Louis has pushed me to be a more intentional giver and a more confident leader.  You’ll note his name is not yet upon the walls of this building but it should be on every corner.  I’m so thankful for his leadership, for our conversations, and for his partnership.

Briefly, although I know it’s not my Bat Mitzvah, I’m so thankful that my mom, dad, and husband are here tonight.  Simply put, this job of Hillel Director is bananas.  In the span of an hour, I can go from counseling a student to plunging a toilet to asking for a million dollars.  Everything I’ve learned about the value of Jewish community came from my upbringing by two of the most giving and gratitude-driven people I’ve ever known.  My husband and my kids have often lost time with me so my fourth child, this building, could be born.  It’s great to have a job you love, but it’s even greater to have loved ones you are always in a rush to get home to.

In closing, I raise a glass tonight to the core of why we are here today, our students; a few in this room tonight are representing the many that have been and the many that will now walk through these beautiful new doors.  

When I was 18 years old and looking to go to college, I merely hoped that the Hillel might provide Shabbat dinner and a friend or two.  Instead, I found an antidote to loneliness for a Southern girl in the middle of New York City, a path to religious observance that has fed my soul for decades, friendships that still hold my heart today, and a partner in this world who I met 19 years ago in the Hillel sukkah.  Your support and the reason you are in this room tonight has little to do with dry wall and concrete, and far more to do with building a space that feels more deeply needed today than it ever has  before.  In a scary world of global pandemics and mental health challenges, of problems that feel so insurmountable to us some days, your giving has built a home with heart.  When our students walk into these doors, they feel SEEN.  And whether they know it or not, this sense of belonging is not accidental.  They are here on the shoulders of parents and grandparents who planted Jewish seeds for them, and they enter the doors of GW Hillel with the support they need to grow their Jewish lives so that generations to come may benefit.  Your support that you’ve given to get us here tonight, and that I pray you will continue to offer early and often, is shaping the brightest of futures for Jewish communal life.  You are enabling our students to thrive, as they take their Jewish values out into the world and solve all that keeps us awake at night.  With your giving, this new home, and our inspiring students – the GW Jewish future is blindingly bright.

To them, and to all of you, I raise a glass of gratitude.  L’Chaim.

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