by Eric Fingerhut
Staff Writer, The Washington Jewish Week
The opening of the MCI Center in the District's Gallery Place section four years ago has led to a surge of restaurants and businesses moving to the area. Now, a major Jewish organization is relocating to the revived neighborhood.
Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has purchased a new building at 800 Eighth St., N.W., and hopes to move into the facility by June. The organization and its approximately 60 staffers are currently housed at the B'nai B'rith building at 1640 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., close to Farragut Square.
Richard Joel, Hillel's president and international director, said the nine-floor, 35,000 square-foot building is "state of the art" and "tailor made" for the organization. The cost, including money to get the building ready to use, will be $14 million.
Joel said that he does not want any money that would normally go toward campus needs to be directed toward the new building; therefore, there will be no formal campaign to raise funds.
"We will be quietly looking to people on the international board of governors [of Hillel] to make the gifts necessary" to pay for the facility, he said.
Buying a building made more sense than renting space somewhere else, Joel said.
"You don't do fund raising to pay rent," he said.
Hillel became independent from B'nai B'rith in 1994, but since then has been the "beneficiary of B'nai B'rith goodness," said Joel. The organization had been subsidizing Hillel by providing it with space -- one entire floor and more than half of two other floors -- in its building for a low rental rate.
But Joel said Hillel had been thinking about moving out on its own for a while, and the opportunity to buy this building was something the organization could not pass up.
Joel also said that Hillel's moving into its own space gave B'nai B'rith the opportunity to "make key decisions on the direction they wanted to take."
As tenants that were not paying full rent, Joel said Hillel was "like an albatross around their neck. ... They weren't free to make decisions in their own interest."
B'nai B'rith's membership and financial resources have declined in recent years, and budgets and staff have been cut significantly in the past two years. In addition, a number of organizations once under its wing have separated financially from the group, including B'nai B'rith Women (now Jewish Women's International) in the mid-1990s, Hillel and, earlier this year, B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, which is now a distinct nonprofit entity separate from its parent organization. Sources have also said that B'nai B'rith is interested in selling its building.
B'nai B'rith International spokesperson Eric Rozenman said that while the organization has explored a number of avenues concerning the building's future, BBI currently is "definitely committed to the building" and is in the process of remodeling one of its two wings. When that renovation is finished, Rozenman said, it is possible that the organization could review that decision.
Joel said Hillel will be occupying only a portion of its new building and hopes to rent the remaining space to other Jewish organizations in the area.
A number of Jewish organizations have offices in the B'nai B'rith building, but sources say that some of those organizations would be interested in renting space in the new Hillel building.
Rozenman said he believes the B'nai B'rith facility and its downtown location "continues to be an attractive address" for Jewish organizations.
Hillel also anticipates renting out at least part of the first floor of the building as retail space.
Hillel and B'nai B'rith are among the largest Jewish organizations headquartered in D.C.
Joel hopes that the new Hillel building will become a dynamic center for Jewish life in the city, and will give Hillel a stronger identity in Washington.
The new building, near Chinatown, is located in an area that had once been heavily populated by Jews. The building, in fact, is adjacent, on Eighth Street, to what had been Washington Hebrew Congregation from 1898 to 1955 and is now the Greater New Hope Baptist Church.
Joel said the Hillel structure's top floor will be transformed into a conference facility that will be open to other Jewish organizations for meetings, press conferences, receptions and other events and will include video conferencing capabilities.
But he emphasized that the Washington international center, while the "nerve center" for Hillels worldwide, is only the "hub of a large wheel." The spokes of that wheel, the campuses, are the most crucial sites.
"The most important part [of Hillel] lives at College Park, at George Washington [University], in Minsk and Montevideo, Uruguay," the site of the newest Hillel.
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