The Hillel program at the University of Georgia dedicated a new $6 million building on the Athens campus on Aug. 25.
The 10,000-square-foot facility, which was formerly the university’s Baxter Street bookstore, triples the space of the building it replaces, a much older structure that had served for more than 60 years as the Hillel center.
The new building is the culmination of an effort that dates back over a half-dozen years.
It had been shepherded along by Michael Coles, the Hillels of Georgia board chair, with major gifts from the Marcus Foundation, Sanford Orkin and the Orkin family, and two dozen other large donors.
“We have built a world class Hillel at the University of Georgia campus,” Coles said. “People will be coming from all over the country to see this building that will give students and others a home away from home.”
The new structure, which is called the Orkin Hillel Center, took just over 14 months to build out. It will have a newly constructed kitchen for the Shabbat dinners, which are a feature of the program, a new coffee bar on the ground floor, as well as lounge areas and meeting rooms.
The second-floor worship area will welcome students, faculty, and local Jewish residents, for a full, inaugural schedule of High Holiday worship services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The broad participation that the worship services encourage in the campus community underlines what the new CEO of Hillels of Georgia, Rabbi Larry Sernovitz, describes as the important role that Hillel plays in building bridges to Jewish life.
“That’s the beauty of what Hillel can do,” Sernovitz said. “While we foster Jewish life on campus, we also really build connections and help make the world a better place. We care deeply about leadership and our commitment is to help create the Jewish leaders of tomorrow, many of which will stay in the state of Georgia and help to make our state and our local communities better as a result.”
The dedication of the new facility also attracted UGA President Jere Morehead, along with the athletic director, Josh Brooks, and basketball coach Mike White. They brought along Hairy Dawg, the costumed mascot of the football program and the two large trophies the university earned in back-to-back national collegiate football championships in 2021 and 2022.
While we foster Jewish life on campus, we also really build connections and help make the world a better place. We care deeply about leadership and our commitment is to help create the Jewish leaders of tomorrow, many of which will stay in the state of Georgia and help to make our state and our local communities better as a result.
The excitement that is created around the football program has given UGA Hillel Director Jeremy Lichtig the opportunity to showcase the new facility as the university hosts four games on their home field.
“The first month or so of events that we have going on, we really are showing the students of UGA that there’s a smorgasbord of Jewish programming here. We want students here to find a path to Jewish life that resonates with them and something that they can build on. Our programs are guided by the 42 members on our student executive board, who oversee five different committees that help to build relationships with students.”
The new building will serve a Jewish community that has grown from about 600 students when Lichtig first came to the Athens campus more than seven years ago to about 1,100 students today.
For some, from small Jewish communities around Georgia and the Southeast, it is an opportunity to explore their Jewish identity in ways that were not available before. For those from larger Jewish communities, according to Lichtig, it’s an opportunity to take the next step on their Jewish journey. So, he is grateful for the many partners the program has cultivated.
“We’re very lucky here because the school, the community, the parents, they all see the value in what we are doing, and everybody wants to help in their own way and build relationships. There’s not many places in the United States that have that kind of partnership across the board…with the university as a wonderful, full partner along with the support we get from the Athens Jewish community and the Atlanta Jewish community.”
At the Hillels of Georgia office in Atlanta, Rabbi Sernovitz, who came to the organization from Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta only two months ago, the future looks bright.
In addition to the millions that were raised for the new building, a $2 million endowment for the UGA program is almost halfway toward its goal, and there are prospects for future growth all around the state.
“We span across the state of Georgia to our metro Atlanta campuses, to Kennesaw State, which is the fastest growing university here, to Athens and others,” Sernovitz said. “We’ve recently got calls from Georgia Military Academy and Berry College, and we support Agnes Scott and Oglethorpe and others. I feel like we’re overwhelmed with opportunity.”