Kitchen fire forces Hillel closure


Bri Hatch

Washington and Lee University’s Hillel House will be closed until further notice after a fire in the E-Cafe on March 15. 

No one was injured, but smoke and water damage affected the first floor and basement area, Lexington City Fire Chief Ty Dickerson said. Cardboard boxes left on a stovetop ignited, sparking the flames.   

Maggie Shapiro Haskett, director of Jewish life on campus, said the Torah and Hillel art collection were safely moved to secure storage. She credits the University Museum, Special Collections, Public Safety and Facilities staff for their support. 

“Thanks to the quick action on the part of those who responded, I feel confident that nothing irreplaceable was damaged,” Haskett said in an email. “We are in good shape.”

Julie Phipps, ‘22, social action chair for the Hillel board, said Hillel’s temporary closure impacts Jewish students. 

“We call it ‘your Jewish home away from home,’” she said.

In a normal year, Hillel hosts weekly catered shabbats on Fridays. It also hosts programming for Jewish holidays like Passover. This year, events have been strictly virtual to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. 

Fire fighters and police responded to the fire on March 15. Photo by Avalon Pernell, ’23.

“We’re prepared for this,” Phipps said. “But it is sad for those of us on campus. It’s a wonderful space, very comfortable, especially to hang out in the upstairs area.”

Some students said they already miss Hillel’s E-cafe — a dining venue that serves sandwiches, smoothies, bagels, and more. 

Ashton Jenne, ‘21, said she went to Hillel every day this year. Jenne said it’s her favorite place to eat on campus because of the healthy and delicious food options — but mostly, because of the friendly staff.

“They always take the time to address me by name and talk to me, and it means a lot that they care so much about the students,” she said in an email. “They do an amazing job managing the rush between class changes, and they make the best food. There is nothing like a good Hillel bagel.”  

The absence of the E-cafe motivated one student to take action. Maddie Weber, ‘21, created a petition on March 22 to allow W&L students to use meal swipes and flex dollars at Legendary Eats, a sandwich shop across the street from Hillel. As of March 27, more than 400 students had signed it. 

Weber emailed the petition and her proposal to President Dudley and Jennifer Hickey, the director of dining, on March 23.  

“Especially during COVID, Hillel bagels, sandwiches, and smoothies are some of the few joys during an otherwise dull and sad time,” Weber said in her email. “Legendary Eats’ menu is very comparable to Hillel’s, so it acts as a temporary replacement for Hillel while its kitchen is under repair.”

K.C. Shaefer, the executive director of auxiliary services, responded to Weber later that night, saying there are too many “logistical hurdles” to implementing a plan with Legendary Eats. She said it would require Legendary Eats to install hardware and technology systems to accept university swipe cards. 

“Not only would this cost investment likely not be worth their while for a temporary setup, but by the time we would be able to get this up and running, the E. Cafe will likely be reopened,” Shaefer said in her email. “We are coordinating closely with our University Facilities department and the fire remediation team with the goal of minimizing the duration of the closure.”

For Phipps, Hillel’s closing is about more than food. Hillel’s commitment to service and “tikkun olam” — a Jewish virtue of repairing the world — makes it a place of belonging for the larger student community. 

“There’s a lot more going on there than just the smoothies and bagels,” Phipps said.  “Hillel is obviously here to serve the Jewish community, but it’s really centered around inclusion and bringing together different groups on campus.”