The Prince George’s County Planning Board approved the detailed site plan for the University of Maryland’s long-awaited new Hillel Cultural Center Thursday.
Maryland Hillel — a Jewish organization that serves University of Maryland students — has had plans to build a new cultural center in the Old Town neighborhood for more than five years.
The organization’s current location on Mowatt Lane is too small to maintain the amount of programs held, such as religious services, dining plans and student organization meetings, according to Hillel finance and operations director Shawn Laing.
The College Park City Council approved the detailed site plan on Nov. 14. With the county planning board’s approval of the detailed site plan, Hillel will now have to create construction plans and apply for county and city permits before construction can begin.
Hillel added a proposed six to eight-foot-tall wrought-iron fence to the southern and eastern sides of the property since the city council’s original approval. The original plan included a five-foot-tall fence in the same style on only the eastern side.
The fence was added to protect Hillel visitors after college campuses saw increased antisemitic and Islamaphobic incidents following recent violence in Israel and Palestine, according to Hillel attorney Larry Taub.
“These antisemitic incidents have been increasing and it really gotten to the point where it was finally recognized that this is something that is very important to this building and we need to go ahead and protect it, unfortunately, but realistically, as much as possible,” Taub said.
Nearly 80 percent of all hate bias incidents reported to the university’s Bias Incident Support Services office in 2023 occurred in October and November. Eight October reports involved “harm against” individuals of Jewish or Muslim backgrounds, according to this university’s diversity and inclusion office.
The county’s planning board commissioner William Doerner said during the Tuesday planning meeting that the last few months have been particularly hard for the Jewish community.
“It’s painful to hear of all the rise in the hate crimes that have been happening. It’s just completely uncalled for,” Doerner said. “I hope that whatever the outcome of this case is, and kind of going for that you can find peace and quiet and happiness throughout the season.”
The city council met and approved the fence addition on Dec. 5
The new center will be a two-story building and will be more than twice the square footage of Hillel’s current center.
The lot for the new center is currently a university-owned parking lot next to Fraternity Row. This university and Hillel are doing a “land swap” and switching ownership of this lot and the current Hillel building.
Hillel received approval for a previous iteration of a detailed site plan for the new Hillel site in 2018, but funding setbacks during the pandemic caused the plan to expire.
University real estate council Tracey Skinner said Hillel plays an important role for this university’s Jewish community.
“The university is pleased to join with the city of College Park in supporting this project,” Skinner said. “We’re pleased to support what this center does for the Jewish community not just on campus but within the city of College Park.”