At embattled Hillel, accusations continue to fly

Jewish students on campus scraped by unaffected by budgeting and autonomy disputes until the recent firing of Dan Libenson.

By Sarah Miller

The firings and dismissals that swept through the Newberger Hillel last month were preceded by long bouts of political and financial brinkmanship that came close to disrupting Jewish student life on multiple occasions, according to insider accounts.

In a public statement released April 19, and in talks since then, former members of the Hillel’s board of directors are claiming that the Jewish United Fund of Chicago (JUF) has been disingenuous about the full extent of its financial support, which the JUF maintains has grown in the decade since it came into ownership of Hillel’s building in 2002.

Meanwhile, the JUF official overseeing Illinois’s Hillels, John Lowenstein, says that the leadership under fired Executive Director Dan Libenson was uncompromising, unrealistic, and risked jeopardizing the quality of the Hillel’s facilities. Libenson was fired in late March.

In both narratives, a picture emerges of harsh demands and sacrifices that would have had broad implications for Jewish programming at the Hillel.

The reciprocal demands between the two organizations began to intensify in March 2011, when the JUF approached Hillel with demands that it cut $100,000 from its budget for the 2011–2012 fiscal year.

Instead, Libenson and the board proposed a series of annual budget cuts, totaling approximately $110,000, that drew mostly on savings in the cost of managing the building. Libenson presented competitive bids from different contractors which were cheaper than the JUF’s rates for managing the property. The Hillel also opted not to replace two recently departed staff members.

The Hillel board determined they could save an additional $20,000 by cutting equipment costs, including a copy machine, computers, and an expensive telephone line.

“They showed us proposals that they could do things for less, but they marked a dramatic change in service,” Lowenstein said. “ put this idea forward of not having a building. If we had listened and made cuts of $120,000–$150,000 in the facility costs and management, they wouldn’t have a space, a facility,” Lowenstein said.

“It’s simply nonsense.”

Although the Hillel’s proposals fell flat, former board member and graduate student Adam Levine-Weinberg claims that the JUF knew its demands could not possibly have been met.

“The JUF believed we had extra funds to cut from our budget, and that just wasn’t the case,” he said. “I looked at the budget and felt we didn’t have the $100,000 in cuts available without significantly cutting back programs.” Hence, the board targeted facilities.

The budget discussion was put on hiatus for six months until September of 2011. The board proposed the same budget cuts, but the JUF insisted instead that the Hillel ramp up its fundraising intake, from $260,000 to $370,000.

Complicating the matter is the fact that the JUF’s financial contribution to the Hillel has been growing by certain measures. However, according to former board Vice President Segal-Loevy and Levine-Weinberg, the increase in JUF funding has not actually strengthened any programs, as the JUF insists. Rather, the board claims, the JUF simply has needed to cover the increasing costs of running the facility.

More damning is the board’s allegation that the JUF actually has been overcharging the Hillel for rent, driving up the costs of maintaining the building to such an extent that the JUF’s additional financial support becomes negligible, in a run-around that Segal-Loevy likened to a company town. In particular, she cites the doubling of the Hillel’s rent between 2002 and 2006.

Furthermore, the board has accused the JUF of taking credit for private donations to the Hillel’s endowment, which the JUF owns.

Lowenstein refuted the claims.

“Rent is based on actual expenses. The idea that the JUF is enriching itself is simply not factual,” he said, adding that the JUF has been actively involved in fundraising efforts and so has every right to take credit for the endowment. “The numbers are the numbers.”

The last discussion about the deficit that took place between Libenson and the board and the JUF was last month. Lowenstein had asked Libenson and the board to cut $40,000 from the budget for this quarter.

The board refused, claiming that making a cut in such a short amount of time would require either the firing of two staff members or cuts to important programs like student internships, the popular Mega Shabbat dinners, and Yavneh, an Orthodox student group.

“We desperately wanted to preserve the programs, and we felt these programs were the primary purpose of the Newberger Hillel,” former board Segal-Loevy said.

The March 2011 demand for budget cuts came in response to a growing deficit at the Hillel, which emerged after building renovations in 2002.

The JUF agreed to fund the $1.6 million project through a capital campaign, but their fundraising efforts fell short, and they only raised $896,000. The JUF agreed to cover the shortfall.

In 2008, however, as an economic recession brought a drop in endowment contributions, the JUF required that the Hillel take on a six-year loan for the deficit. Demands for budget cuts soon followed.

The JUF’s funding for the Hillel for the 2011–2012 fiscal year is approximately $172,000, according to figures provided by the board’s immediate past president, James Cherney. That is a decrease from the $183,000 allocated for the 2010–2011 year detailed in a spreadsheet distributed by Lowenstein and the Hillel’s interim executive director, Paul Saiger, at an open meeting with students two weeks ago.