Hillel to build new $7-million home at UBC

VANCOUVER — When demolition crews start tearing down Hillel House at the University of British Columbia next month, an institution that has been central to Jewish life on campus since 1947 will begin a new chapter.

Proposed new Hillel House at UBC

The razing of the 61-year-old building will pave the way for the construction of a new, $7-million Hillel House on the old structure’s current site in the heart of UBC’s campus. It’s scheduled to open in August 2009.

“We’re going from 2,500 square feet to 12,000 square feet in a space that will offer student offices, a games room, a large student lounge, a dining hall, a kosher kitchen, a boardroom and a library,” said Eyal Lichtmann, executive director of Vancouver Hillel.

The new building is being designed by Acton Ostry Architects, an award-winning firm whose portfolio includes Vancouver’s new King David Jewish High School and West Vancouver’s Har-El Synagogue.

The project has been made possible in part by UBC’s agreement to extend Hillel’s lease in its current location until 2084.

“We consider it a multi-million dollar investment by the university in providing us with the opportunity to be here for the next 76 years,” Lichtmann said.

“It’s quite historic, and it’s a big deal, because this is a gift to the Jewish community: to be able to be on the centre of campus with the best location of a Hillel on any campus in North America. All they’re asking our community to do is put up the money for the building.”

Vancouver Hillel wasn’t always in the campus centre. When the current building first opened its doors in 1947, it was located on the outskirts of the university. But a new academic corridor was built around Hillel House in the 1960s, giving it an enviable location.

When Lichtmann and his team became aware of UBC’s plans to redevelop the campus back in 2004, they opted to work with the administration to find a way to stay on campus.

“We made the argument that we’ve been here since 1947, and just because we’re in the centre of student life now, we shouldn’t be moved,” he said. “The university agreed.”

Vancouverite Isaac Thau is heading the capital fundraising campaign for Vancouver Hillel and has helped raise $6.5 million over the past 18 months. “Our funding so far has come from almost exclusively within Vancouver,” Thau said. “We’re hoping to raise $8 million to have a larger endowment for Hillel.”

Thau, a Winnipeg native who moved to British Columbia 25 years ago, became involved with Hillel in 1998.

“I was sitting around many communal board tables at the time and found that so much of the dialogue was on how to stem the tide of assimilation and keep people Jewish,” he recalls. “Then Birthright [Israel] started and we saw a phenomenal success, kids returning from Israel inspired, with an amber light burning inside them. Hillel figured out how to take these kids, with their Jewish pride and love for Israel, and offer them a place to grow those emerging feelings and awareness.”

The Hillel House on UBC’s campus also serves as a nerve centre for Hillel at the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University across town, and future plans see it serving B.C.’s community college system as well.

The new building will enrich both Jewish life and Jewish student life on campus, Lichtmann said.

“We’re building something that’s going to create an enormous amount of Jewish student engagement and integrate Jewish students into Jewish life for the next 80 years,” he explains. “This will help build our community.”