This week, Jews at the University of Chicago celebrate Passover, a festival that marks the beginning of the most profound challenge to ever face the Jewish people. At the same time, Jewish students on campus are facing another challenge: the complete upheaval of the University’s Hillel and its Jewish community at large.
The chaos has resulted from the decision of the Jewish United Fund of Chicago (JUF) to dismiss Hillel’s Board of Directors and fire Director Dan Libenson. I believe the JUF’s moves were serious mistakes for three major reasons.
Perhaps the most obvious risk this shakeup poses is that of fracture. Libenson and the Board have already stated their intention to start a new Jewish organization. The Maroon reported that JewSA, an RSO with ORCSA funding, has been asked for future financial support by other student groups. This suggests that at least a few organizations are considering a split from Hillel, and it is not a stretch to imagine that others will follow suit. Hillel enjoyed the unique position of serving as a nexus for a great variety of other Jewish organizations, and this upheaval has undoubtedly upset it from that position.
The schism has a number of negative implications. Organizational research suggests that intra-organizational cooperation is much easier than inter-organizational cooperation, so we can likely expect a decrease in cooperation among Jewish groups on campus. Another consideration is that new Jewish students will face a much more complex and confusing landscape when they arrive. Regardless of the eventual outcome, it is clear that the JUF’s abrupt decision will leave the UChicago Jewish community more scattered than it currently is. I don’t believe anyone in the University community wants to see that happen.
The JUF’s decision also hurts the Jewish community by depriving it of a strong advocate. Dan Libenson consistently worked to provide engaging and fulfilling programs to Jewish students and the campus as a whole. He oversaw the JewChicago initiative, which was a collection of events and programs designed to appeal to Jews of all levels of religious commitment. Many of these events, like Mega Shabbat, were well-known and well-attended, even among non-Jews. Because Mr. Libenson consistently planned engaging events and attracted top quality speakers, Hillel became a real asset to this campus. With his yearly address at the Latke-Hamantash Debate, he promoted a sense of Jewish pride and showed his considerable literary and oratorical talent.
I only met Mr. Libenson once or twice, but he made a major impression on me. As a prospective student wandering into Hillel house with my parents, Mr. Libenson immediately approached us, looking to be helpful. He gave us a tour of the house and entertained us in his office for over an hour, sharing anecdotes about UChicago and answering our questions. On that day, Dan really demonstrated what it meant to be a passionate and conscientious administrator. By removing him from the executive director position, the JUF has deprived our campus of a powerful and capable Jewish advocate.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, the decision to remove Libenson and the Board ignores the will of the very students Hillel is meant to support and serve. Because of the unique nature of Hillel in the state of Illinois, the JUF ultimately is responsible for making decisions about how Hillel is run. In other words, the JUF can do whatever it wants with its own money. However, I believe it’s uncontroversial to say that the primary goal of Hillel at UChicago is to provide religious and cultural resources to Jewish students. In fact, the official mission of Hillel, taken from its Web site, is to “enrich the lives of Jewish undergraduate and graduate students.” We can logically conclude that the JUF should deal swiftly with administrators who don’t meet that goal. Yet all evidence points to the decision to remove Libenson as a primarily economic and administrative one.
The Jewish Daily Forward reported this past Tuesday that JUF officials say the former Hillel leadership was guilty of financial mismanagement. They quote a JUF official as saying, “We don’t feel that they’re good fiscal stewards.” The article goes on to suggest that the firing may have been a response to calls for independence by the board. While these are important considerations, they can only be successfully resolved by negotiation between Hillel and the JUF. Yes, firing Libenson and the board may allow the JUF to change the financial situation to suit their preference, but it’s done at the cost of disrupting the core mission of the organization. At the end of the day, the JUF needs to realize that settling an administrative dispute is far, far less important than continuing to provide a robust center for Jewish life. I am confident that the JUF believes the same, but has not come to that conclusion yet.
After escaping Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the Sinai desert for 40 years. It is my sincere hope that the Jewish community here at UChicago is not set adrift for that long. In order to avoid permanent damage, the JUF needs to restore Libenson and the board immediately. To resolve the budgeting issues, JUF leadership, Libenson, and the board should hold an open forum that would allow students to give their input. Students should have a say in what services and programs are most important. To maintain the status quo as it stands now, however, would have strong negative repercussions for years to come.
Taylor Schwimmer is a second-year in the College majoring in public policy studies.