A rocky past, an uncertain future for Hillel

After the Jewish United Fund (JUF) fired the entire Hillel leadership board, Hillel says programming is as extensive as ever, despite budget cuts.

By Nathan Peereboom

A year after the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) gutted U of C’s Newberger Hillel leadership, Hillel says programming is more extensive than ever, even as the budget has been drastically decreased.

Hillel is an international organization that serves Jewish college communities. U of C’s independent Hillel chapter was acquired by JUF in 2005, a non-profit conglomerate. In March 2012, after years of dramatic budget disputes, JUF fired Dan Libenson, Hillel’s executive director, along with the entire board.

Almost a year later, Vice President of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement for the JUF John Lowenstein said that student participation in Hillel programs is high while Hillel’s budget has been cut. According to Hoffman, the expense budget for this year has decreased to about $750,000, over $150,000 less than Hillel budgeted for itself before JUF’s firing spree.

A history of financial conflicts

Hillel’s relationship with JUF began in 1996 when the Newberger family helped fund the addition of a chapel onto the Hillel Center that now bears their name. The Newberger’s gift was made on the condition that the deed to the building be handed over to JUF. In 2000, the $1.5 million deed to the property was sold to JUF for $1. Since then, Hillel has paid annual rent to JUF.

In the following decade, JUF dramatically increased the rent it charged Hillel for the Hillel Center. From 2002–2007, JUF increased the rent by nearly 240 percent, ultimately charging Hillel $209,854 per year. In following years, Hillel ran consecutive annual budget deficits often topping $100,000. This led to the Hillel Board and JUF clashing continuously over the budget.

JUF’s financial support of Hillel was a particular area of contention. Last spring, JUF claimed it contributed “annual support of almost $500,000” to Hillel. The former Hillel board responded that JUF was overstating its contribution by including payouts from Hillel’s own endowment and Hillel’s bond repayments in that number.

“These funds belong to Hillel. They were given by donors—not by JUF—for the benefit of Hillel. JUF acts like a bank in that they hold funds for many different organizations…. To claim this amount as ‘JUF support of Hillel’ is deceptive because JUF has no choice but to give those funds to Hillel,” wrote one source in an email.

Adding to the conflict, after JUF told Hillel to reduce their budget, JUF refused to accept the board’s budget cut proposals. The board wished to switch facilities management companies from FacCorp to a set of alternative management companies. FacCorp is owned by JUF.

A source intimate with the negotiations pointed out that many increases in cost for Hillel were based on FacCorp’s—and JUF’s—own pricing. For example, between 2007–2010 FacCorp’s Management Service fee more than doubled from $16,100 to $36,073 while the service itself remained unchanged. Further, JUF charged Hillel a 27 percent benefits surcharge on each employee’s salary that went into a benefits pool, even though the majority of Hillel employees did not receive benefits.

Eventually, Nancy Newberger requested a mediator to solve the disagreements. JUF chose Harvey J. Barnett, now chairman of the JUF Board. Frustrated with JUF’s refusal to accept Hillel’s budget cuts, the Hillel board requested that JUF restore Hillel’s “corporate independence” in a letter late last March.

Ruth O’Brien and James Churney wrote, “We are unable to fulfill our mission if Federation will not allow us to make budget cuts from the building management and administrative charges it controls and assesses to our Hillel. This leaves us in the position of either having a building without a program or a program without a building.”

Two days later, a letter from Barnett, the mediator, fired the entire board and the executive director. Subsequently, the locks on the Hillel Center were replaced and Dan Libenson’s files were boxed and put on the sidewalk outside the Hillel Center.

Doing much more with less”

Since last spring, old programs have grown and new ones have begun. The number of Mega Shabats —large Friday night dinners—has decreased by half, but participation in individual Mega Shabbats has risen about 10 percent. Hillel now provides free weekly smaller Shabbats for 40 to 60 students, and applications are also strong for Hillel’s internships and the Israel Birthright trip.

“We’re doing much more with less…. Jewish life is richer on campus,” said John Lowenstein, vice president of campus affairs and student engagement for the JUF.

Hoffman said that some of the cuts were made by reducing Mega Shabbats, eliminating a $20,000 speaking series, and reducing employees—particularly work study students.

Lowenstein elaborated on further cuts, saying that there were cuts across the board. These cuts included: nearly $45,000 in ‘honorarium,’ which appears as a single line–item in the budget, advertising, conferences, offering payment for people to get master’s degrees, and $12,000 in travel expenses.

However, some of the cuts would not change the overall deficit. For example, the $20,000 speaking series—the Thinker-in-Residence Program—was a restrictive gift, meaning that when the Hillel cut the program, the Horwitz Family Charitable Fund, which had funded it in past years, demanded its remaining donation returned. Similarly, when Hillel divested itself of the Latke–Hamantash Debate, its largest and most visible program by participation numbers, it also lost the $15,000 restrictive gift to fund the event.

When asked to respond on the specifics of this year’s budget, Lowenstein and Hoffman declined to comment.