Ever since the Hillel facility at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia opened two months ago, it's been like Thanksgiving every time Hillel Vancouver Executive Director Eyal Lichtmann has visited the center.
"Every time I walk in there, students come up to me and say, 'Thank you,'" Lichtmann said. "I'm humbled by their humility and appreciation."
For the 600 Jewish students at SFU, getting their own, permanent space for Hillel has been a 20-year process. Hillel at SFU, which is part of Hillel Vancouver, had been based out of the university's interfaith chaplaincy office, along with several other religious and ethnic student organizations, which offered the Jewish students limited space for their meetings and programming. When the university started making plans to construct a centrally located, mixed-use building of condos, retail outlets and faculty offices 18 months ago, Lichtmann jumped at the chance to apply for a space.
After the negotiations with the SFU administration were complete, Hillel Vancouver professionals and lay leaders worked quickly to raise the funds to renovate and furnish the 1,250-square-foot suite into a welcoming home for Jewish life at SFU. Local supporters donated everything from flooring and furniture to interior-design expertise and artwork. In addition to a large meeting room and office space for students and staff, the facility also includes a kosher kitchen to prepare large meals, a smaller kitchenette for students to use during the day, high-speed Internet access, an entertainment system and a Jewish library.
"It's so easy to build a facility that's sterile, but this isn't. It's very homey," Lichtmann said.
And increasingly, the Jewish students at SFU have made it their home on campus. While 10-20 students typically attended a Hillel program before, Lichtmann and Elad Guberman, Hillel Vancouver's Israel fellow who is based at SFU, were both surprised and pleased to welcome 160 students during the first three days of opening. Despite the increase in space, attendance at Shabbat dinners has already surpassed capacity, and the professionals have noticed an increase in student leadership as well. Enthusiasm for Jewish life has spread beyond the Hillel walls as well.
"It's only now that we're seeing Hillel presence on campus. It's everywhere, all the time," Lichtmann said. "The demand has tripled the need of our organization as a whole to provide programming and resources."
The new facility has not only made SFU students take notice of the thriving campus Hillel, but the larger Vancouver Jewish community has also sung its praises.
"The presence of Hillel on the SFU campus is notable for Jewish students there, most obviously. But its presence will have profound effects on the larger Jewish world," said the staff of the Jewish Independent newspaper in a recent editorial.