As students rush around the corner toward the Leavey Center Starbucks and Cosi, they may notice that a once-deserted space has undergone a spiritual awakening.
Makóm, a new Jewish gathering area located along one of Leavey’s main thoroughfares, is a sign of wider changes at work for the Jewish Chaplaincy and Hillel. Just in time for the observance of Yom Kippur this weekend, Jewish students have seen an uptick in campus awareness and university support for their faith community.
“Many of my friends from home found it slightly odd that I was going to a Jesuit school, considering the fact that I am Jewish,” Randi Lawrence (SFS ’15) said. “But I have found the Jewish community here both very welcoming and surprisingly active. It is so comforting to see so many fellow students show up to Shabbat services each Friday — it makes me feel like I belong.”
Jewish Student Association Co-President Samantha Sisskind (SFS ’12), who has been involved in Jewish student organizations since her freshman year, echoed this sentiment.
“[The Jewish community] is a feeling of home within Georgetown,” she said. “It’s been very significant to my experience over the last several years.”
While the chaplaincy operated for many years out of a rented townhouse on 36th Street, the new, centrally located Makóm has already upped attendance at many JSA events, according to Sisskind.
“It’s central, it’s beautiful and it’s big. Students are thrilled about it and see it as a major statement of support [from the university],” Rabbi Rachel Gartner said of the area.
The new space is the latest development in a trend of rising university backing of the Jewish ministry on campus. In 2010, the university agreed to help foot the cost of renting the JSA townhouse — which had formerly been funded by donations — after students called on the university to address the chaplaincy’s tightened budget and capacity.
Makóm’s location is only temporary, as Jewish student space will eventually form part of the new Interfaith Center, set for completion in the next several years. According to Gartner, the finished project will contain spaces for the Muslim and Jewish communities, as well as multi-purpose space and a kosher kitchen.
The construction of the Interfaith Center will knock out the hallway connecting Hoya Court to Cosi and Starbucks, and a new diagonal hallway will take its place. According to previous statements from the Office of Mission and Ministry, the timeline on renovations will depend on financing sources and contributions.
In conjunction with the fresh space in Leavey, the Jewish Chaplaincy has a new leader this year in Rabbi Rachel Gartner. Appointed last spring, the New York native’s life journey has been rooted in her faith.
“I grew up in a family where my mother was really into Reform Judaism, and my father was very, very committed as a cultural Jew,” she said.
Gartner explained that her deeply ingrained beliefs were challenged in college when she had difficulty answering friends’ questions about her traditions and faith. She knew, however, that she wanted to be able to respond. This search for answers led Gartner to Israel, where she lived for nearly two years. It was during her time there that she decided to attend Rabbinical school.
Now at Georgetown after her most recent posting as Miami University of Ohio’s rabbi and executive director of Hillel, Gartner has been more than welcomed by students of the Jewish community.
“She brings a whole new energy. Rabbi Rachel is a big part of the new robust community that we now have,” Sisskind said.
Gartner is only the second permanent rabbi to lead the Jewish chaplaincy on campus. The first, Rabbi Harold White, retired last year after more than 40 years of service. He remains a member of the faculty in the Program for Jewish Civilization.
When White came to campus in 1968, however, Georgetown became the first Catholic university to hire a full-time rabbi.
He originally established the chaplaincy in order to increase interfaith understanding and provide a sense of community for Jewish students.
“There’s something wonderfully mysterious that occurs at Georgetown,” he said. “The connections being established between religions, spirituality and public policy — I believe that these are very important.”
According to White, the first Jewish students graduated in 1954, but it was not until the mid-1960s that he saw a noticeable rise in the number of Jewish students on the Hilltop.
White credits the leadership of President Edward Bunn, S.J., namesake of the Bunn Intercultural Center, for increasing the Jewish presence on campus.
“Bunn asked a prominent D.C. rabbi to join the university’s board of directors. From there, his focus on recruiting more Jewish students was quite evident.”
When White arrived on the Hilltop, the JSA had already begun to establish itself as a presence after a year on campus.
“We hosted Friday night Shabbat and dinners in the rented JSA house off campus,” White said. “It was a very active program.”
White estimated that 12 to 14 percent of the current student body identifies as Jewish and that these students strongly feel the need to exhibit their religious identity.
“At Penn and other schools with 35 percent Jewish students, you don’t need to do anything to show your religious identity,” he said. “Being in the minority, you have to, or you lose that identity.”
White’s goal of inspiring a sense of Jewish solidarity has been fully realized, according to JSA Vice President of Religious Affairs Eric Hoerger (SFS ’12).
“The Jewish community has contributed a great deal to the phenomenal experience that I’ve had on the Hilltop” he said. “The benefits to such a community extend well beyond the religious aspect itself. I’ve met an amazing group of friends who met via the organization but have grown to be defined by common interests as well.”
For White, the university cannot hope to meet the needs of many Jewish students until a kosher kitchen is a reality.
“Once we have a kosher option, the number of Orthodox students will rise,” he said.
For now, the new space is a welcome fresh start for the new year.
“The new Jewish space has given us the opportunity to be a much more visible presence on campus,” Hoerger said. “For the first time, we can comfortably seat 30 to 40 students for Shabbat services. We also have a lot more opportunities with programming and storage. Overall, it’s been great.”
This sense of welcome is exactly what Gartner hopes the Jewish community will foster in its members and guests.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to stretch and to learn. That’s the gift of being a small, diverse community,” she said.