Richard Joel is losing patience with the task forces and commissions looking for solutions to the problems of assimilation.
The international director of B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations already has one in place: the international network of campus Hillels, which are devoted to creating and maintaining Jewish life on campus.
And he feels the Jewish community is underfunding and under-utilizing this vital resource.
Hillel’s $17 million overall budget, including activities on more than 100 campuses and Joel’s headquarters in Washington, means that barely more than $40 is spent for each of the 400,000 Jewish college students Hillel is mandated to serve.
While the issues related to intermarriage and identity grouped under the rubric "Jewish continuity" have leaped to the top of the Jewish communal agenda since the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, Hillel funding has so far shown no such leap.
Like other Jewish agencies, Hillel has suffered from the current recession and the fundraising campaign to resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union, which have reduced its income from Jewish federations.
What has brought Hillel’s funding problems to the fore, however, has been deep cuts from its parent organization, which is suffering serious, and some fear irreversible, financial difficulties. In the past two years, B’nai B’rith has cut back its funding of Hillel by $1.1 million, nearly a third, to roughly $2.6 million.
This has translated into across-the-board cuts to campuses across the country, and the closing of Hillel houses at some smaller schools.
Across the country, Hillels have laid off program staff. And Hillel directors are putting their energies into fundraising, at the expense of promoting Jewish activities and outreach to students.
All this at a time when Hillel professionals are reporting an upsurge of student interest in their programs – perhaps, the professionals say, because of a renewed search for spirituality that has swept the nation or perhaps because of an increased interest in Israel. This new interest only adds to the need for increased funding.
But Joel hopes to turn the crisis of the decline of B’nai B’rith, the world’s oldest fraternal Jewish organization, into an opportunity for the organization he has headed for the past four years.
"My concern is that the community not perceive its challenge as saying how do we make up B’nai B’rith money," he said. "If we set our sights on ensuring we are as poorly funded as we have been, we might as well close up shop.
"To continue to do triage work on campus, with much too little support, is absolutely criminal when the community has identified the campus as necessary," Joel said.
Joel, a former assistant district attorney in the Bronx and dean of Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School, is starting to take his case to the community.
"I wouldn’t say it is now or never," said Joel. "But this year, and this (General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations), is a watershed in terms of refocusing on the community’s responsibilities."
Joel was referring to the central gathering of the Jewish communal and organizational world, which begins Nov. 10 in New York.
Immediately following the assembly, the CJF will hold the first meeting of its national task force on the campus.
Norbert Fruehauf, the CJF official staffing the task force, explains its purpose as working with "federations and the national agencies serving college students to provide expanded programing on campus, additional resources and more planning.
"It also aims to involve students in their respective communities, and have federations engage in more planning with the university campuses and to set up some sort of an approved system for resource allocation in the country."
Joel is pleased by the creation of the task force, but impatient.
"One of the issues from my end is how do you provoke this community into not processing everything to death? I think the task force is an effort to not just paper over the problem, but I’m really chomping at the bit," he said.
Joel talks of doubling Hillel’s budget, perhaps over a five-year period. He is stepping up Hillel fund raising, which marks a departure from the organization’s tradition of relying on, and not competing with, B’nai B’rith.
"Hillel may separate from B’nai B’rith, even lose all that funding, in the next year, rather than go down with ship," said one Hillel director on condition of anonymity.
Currently, the B’nai B’rith contribution is down to one-seventh of Hillel’s budget. The new Hillel logo identifies the organization as "The Foundation of the Campus Jewish Community" but does not mention B’nai B’rith.
At the same time, if Joel is to succeed, federation funding, which currently is nearly half of the Hillel budget, must increase.
Joel says it is a necessary investment. "If the community is concerned about continuity and identity, it knows that Hillel has the credibility, "he said.
"Clearly we could do more with enhanced staff and funding," said Rabbi Paul Saiger, Hillel director at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. "There may well be 50 percent of the students who, by the time they hit college, really will not be affected by Jewish approaches. But the other 50 will, and in no place where you have one or two people trying to deal with a thousand, 3,000 students, can you do the job that has to be done."
At Ohio’s Oberlin College, Rabbi Shimon Brand agrees. "If I had more staff, I would have people in dormitories, doing the one-to-one stuff we don’t have time to do. The really effective work is person-intensive."
At the largest American federation, Jeffrey Solomon is hesitant to accept Hillel’s claims on face value. Solomon, the chief operating officer for program services at UJA-Federation of New York, notes that Hillel has become an increasing priority and taken an increasing proportion of his federation’s allocations.
But he cautions that "one has to do significantly more research before one draws any conclusion on the subject. We don’t know continuity will be enhanced. We believe it, but we need a lot more research."
Joel counters that Hillel’s own task force on outreach has already developed an inventory of successful programs and an agenda of piloting new and innovative programs.
If continuity is not the foremost buzzword in the Jewish establishment and at the federations’ General Assembly, the honor goes to continental responsibility: the notion that problems facing American Jews cannot be solved on a city by city basis, that Jews in Texas should be no more left to their own resources than those in Tel Aviv or Tashkent.
This notion is enshrined for the first time in by-laws of the Council of Jewish Federations that are expected to be approved at the General Assembly.
And it is an idea high on Hillel’s agenda. Currently, the bulk of the roughly $8 million of federation money that goes to Hillel is allocated by federations to campuses either in their community or in their state.
This system, however, does not take into account the fact that students do not always go where there are federations to finance their Jewish life on campus.
One of the most striking examples is at Binghamton University (formerly the State University of New York, Binghamton campus), in central New York State.
Binghamton has 4,000 Jewish students, a third of the campus, most from New York City and its environs. The actual Binghamton Jewish community numbers only 5,000, and, not surprisingly, can afford to contribute only $7,000 to Jewish activity on campus.
To make matters worse, Binghamton was never a recipient of B’nai B’rith money, and first became formally affiliated with Hillel two years ago, when it received a three-year annual grant of $7,000.
This enabled the Jewish Student Union to become a Hillel, and hire Riva Rittberg as its director. She receives a part-time salary, but puts in far more hours than that, trying to raise the money to keep activities going and ensure they continue when the Hillel grant concludes.
"This is an institutional problem," said Joel. "The closest federation, New York, says we’re really committed to students, but Binghamton is outside of our catchment area."
At New York’s UJA-Federation, Solomon said his organization had to draw the line.
"New York Is blessed with having a number of world class campuses, and having students from around the country that come to New York. Under the current system, we do our fair share by funding the New York campuses."
But he agreed with Joel that the system could be improved, that "continental responsibility is a way of equitably dealing with the issues of funding campuses."
As Joel put it, "The Jewish community has to decide if they want to make the campus a place where youth can grapple with their Jewishness, or close their eyes to it."