Focus on Issues: Infusion of Cash to Hillel Aimed at Issues of Identity

Jewish federations across the country are being asked to back up their rhetoric on behalf of Jewish identity and continuity by paying their “fair share” of an expanded Hillel program on college campuses.

The Board of Delegates of the Council of Jewish Federations is being asked to approve an immediate infusion of $850,000 to Hillel.

But this is being described as only an interim measure.

Hillel and federation officials speak of major increases in the $9 million in annual allocations that federations give to Hillel foundations and other campus programs.

Currently, $22 million is spent each year, mostly by Hillel, for Jewish activities for the estimated 400,000 Jewish students on American college campuses.

That comes to $50 per student, or “less that the cost of an athletic pass at a Big Ten university,” in the words of the Interim Report of the CJF Task Force on Jewish University Student Services.

It was the report, issued earlier this month, that made the recommendation grants to Hillel, which the CJF board will vote on Feb. 1.

The interim report calls for “significantly increased level of federation funding for campus activities” over the next five years, and adopting an “appropriate Equitable Collective Responsibility program for continental funding of campus services.”

Details of those plans remain to be worked out and will be one of the topics of the continuing deliberations of the task force, which has been meeting since the autumn of 1992.

The added funds being sought for campus life are significant.

Richard Joel, executive director of B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations, speaks of raising the organization’s aggregate budget from $20 million to $35 million annually.

This sort of increase is necessary, according to Joel and the task force report, to turn the campus into a place that promotes Jewish identity.

Current campus programs, according to the report, meet most of the needs of students with strong Jewish identity and commitment – a group estimated to number between 10 and 15 percent of Jewish students.

It is this group which constitutes the campus Jewish activists and leaders.

But for most Jewish students – the report estimates 60 percent – being Jewish is only a passive part of their identity.

“Our challenge is to take this passive level of identification and create an active desire to belong,” says the report.

“With the funding levels we have, we’ve been able to do a fairly adequate job in serving people who come and say they want Jewish services,” said Joel.

“What we have not been able to do with any constancy and consistency is what the rest of the community has had trouble doing, reaching out to people who do not come to us,” he said.

The task force report and its outreach proposals were welcomed by Rabbi Paul Saiger, director of Hillel at the University of Rochester and president of the Association of Hillel and Jewish Campus Professionals.

“I think it is both realistic and doable on the one hand, but also visionary and inspiring on the other,” he said.

“I and many of my colleagues have been doing most of this stuff intuitively. It was nice to see it put together in a package, along with a sense the organized Jewish community is going to begin taking the campus seriously,” he said.

He agreed with the report that the ability of Hillel to reach students is hampered by questions of staffing and funds.

With, on average, only one Hillel staff member for every 2,000 Jewish students, “what frequently happens is the person is overwhelmed by the articulated needs of people coming to campus knowing what they want,” said Saiger.

“So the vision of outreach only makes sense and can only be implemented if it is tied with the resources to reach beyond” the students with an active Jewish identity, he said.

Such outreach, as recommended by the task force report and carried out by Saiger and other Hillel professionals, involves running activities that are not religiously or culturally Jewish, but are designed to bring together Jewish students.

At the University of Florida, said Saiger, the Hillel has organized an intermural athletic league, “which is reaching out to a whole constituency who might never have stepped into a Hillel building.”

This was made possible by a grant to hire two students as part-time outreach workers.

At his own campus, Hillel is sponsoring service programs for students to volunteer at a battered women’s shelter, participate in a big brother-big sister program, visit the Jewish home for the aged, and tutor students in the inner city.

“Some of these programs are Jewish, but not exclusively so,” said Saiger. “Our students are interested in helping people. Doing it in a Jewish context is the beginning of a relationship with people not necessarily interested in doing something exclusively Jewish.”

Besides calling on Hillels to implement this sort of openness for students without a strong Jewish identity, the task force report also asks federations to make a stronger effort in reaching out to students.

“From a federation viewpoint, we have not been a very welcoming place for students,” said Michael Rukin, chairman of the task force.

The report, he said, “is a message to federations that we, the federations, have to be more open, user-friendly, tuned in to the agenda of college students.”

But whatever changes in attitudes are being asked of federations, the task force report makes clear that the real challenge will come in changing allocations and budgets.

Currently, between zero and 14 percent of local federation allocations go to college services, according to the report, with the national average being 3.4 percent. That amounts to only 1.4 percent of total funds raised by federation campaigns.

The new plan to make funding higher and more evenly distributed is expected to be drawn up by November.

It comes at a time when both the CJF and Hillel are undergoing far-reaching changes in structure and scope.

At CJF, the past four years has seen a move from a loose collection of individual local federations to a national body dealing with national problems.

This idea of “fair-share, collective responsibility” has already been used to ensure fair funding for the resettlement of Eastern European Jewish refugees in the United States, and for guaranteeing loans for refugees settling in Israel.

Funding Jewish activities on campus could be the next logical step. Currently, most Hillel foundations are supported in large measure by their local federations – a problem for the many campuses whose Jewish population outnumbers the off-campus Jewish population.

At the same time, Hillel itself is in the process of major restructuring.

Founded in 1923 at the University of Illinois, Hillel was taken under the wing of B’nai B’rith, at the time America’s largest Jewish service and fraternal organization. Hillel was originally intended to help students looking for religious observance, kosher food and a sense of community.

In recent years, B’nai B’rith has seen a dramatic decline in membership. It was consequently forced to decrease its contributions to Hillel by almost $2 million, or 50 percent, over the past three years.

With B’nai B’rith playing a diminishing role, and with federation contributions – mostly through local Hillel organizations – playing a far larger role, the new realities are being reflected in a new governance structure.

The activities of B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations, Inc., are being transferred to a new corporate entity, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

“It is expected and hoped that B’nai B’rith will continue to be supportive of Hillel, will continue to give the amount of financial support it has been giving, and will still be involved in governance,” said Hillel’s Joel.

The vote of CJF board will not actually bind member federations to make the recommended contributions to Hillel.

In the meantime, Hillel is getting another source of outside funding, from the newly formed National Supporting Foundation, the Fund for Jewish Campus Life. It is chaired by Edgar Bronfman and is expected to contribute more than $3 million a year to Hillel and other campus programming.

The supporting foundation has committed to matching the $850,000 being sought for Hillel’s current projected deficit.

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