Focus on Issues: Rejuvenated Hillel More Active in Jewish College Life Nationwide
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Focus on Issues: Rejuvenated Hillel More Active in Jewish College Life Nationwide

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Fraternities and Hillels once stood in diametric opposition on the scale of what’s considered cool in college life: frats brought to mind “Animal House,” while Hillels were known as the “synagogue on campus.”

Students at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti won’t find such a strong distinction this year at the ’60s-themed “Peace of EMU — Tie One on at Hillel” tie-dye party, the semester’s kick-off event cosponsored by the campus Hillel and Alpha Epsilon Pi.

The national Jewish fraternity encourages its chapters to get involved with Hillels, in part “to get more of a Jewish atmosphere going in our frat,” explained Gary Heicklen, a junior and the president of AEPi at the Michigan school, attended by an estimated 1,000 Jewish students.

Meanwhile Hillel gets a partner in bringing Jewish students together to “do Jewish with other Jews,” the 76-year-old organization’s new mission, which encourages partnerships with other Jewish campus groups and openness to a wide range of Jewish expression.

Practically any activity that consciously engages Jews as Jews — from Torah study to tie-dying T-shirts — counts toward Jewish renaissance for the 76- year-old Hillel organization.

“We’re not looking to get people affiliated,” said Richard Joel, Hillel’s president and international director. “We want them to participate in their story.”

As part of that effort, Joel recently announced that Hillel will pursue a new means of engaging college students: Israel2000.

Part of the pilot program for Birthright Israel, Hillel’s Israel2000 will offer free 10-day, first-time trips to Israel for students from 80 campuses across the country.

The Birthright initiative — created by two philanthropists, Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, who now serves as chairman of the United Jewish Communities — is slated to begin providing similar trips to high school students beginning in 2001.

Hillel is organizing trips for 3,000 of the 5,000 North American college students who could be headed for the Holy Land on Birthright-funded programs this coming winter. Hillel is now accepting applications for the trips, scheduled to begin Dec. 29.

Joel recognizes Hillel’s challenge in mobilizing 75 percent more college students than ever before, but he sees it as a “great opportunity.”

“We can test out the notion that Israel can be leverage for promoting Jewish identity,” Joel said in a recent interview.

“A whole hunk of our budget and effort and program is geared” toward bringing into Hillel trip participants who are not already active in Jewish campus life, he added.

The Israel2000 trips, he said, are “a great new tool for the engagement track.”

Hillel is laying similar tracks at more than 100 affiliate campuses in North America, as well as at Hillel foundations in the former Soviet Union, England, Italy, Germany and Israel. Further operations are planned for Eastern and Central Europe.

Beyond going global, Hillel has been undergoing an internal and revitalizing change: Hillel houses have transformed into Hillel foundations, with the freedom and responsibility to design their own programs and fund-raising initiatives. Hillel campuses can apply for accreditation under stringent requirements to become, in essence, franchises of the Washington-based international organization.

“Not like McDonald’s,” Joel explained in an interview, but “like Best Western. Each one looks different, but you know what you’re getting.”

Even without full accreditation, affiliation with Hillel offers Jewish campus groups “recognition,” said Roger Kaplan, the director of the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke University, which opened the doors of its new 17,500- square-foot building in August.

Hillel “gives us complete access and cooperation with a national organization” — its resources, expertise and experience, said Kaplan.

Over the years, the international organization has attracted major philanthropists, whose involvement attests to the growing prominence of private funding in a field formerly dominated by Jewish organizations.

Edgar Bronfman, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, serves as Hillel’s international chairman as well as one of its three major donors, together with Steinhardt and the Oklahoma-based Schusterman Family Foundation.

Private support drives some of Hillel’s most innovative programs, such as the Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps, a growing group of Hillel recruiters and campus organizers.

From Northern California to North Carolina, these 200 recent college graduates have rejuvenated the organization, meeting students in dorms and student unions and working with them to organize Jewish activities on campus ranging from religious study to musical theater.

The first Hillel chapter opened at the University of Illinois at Urbana, Champaign in 1923, and soon the growing campus movement was adopted by B’nai B’rith.

In 1994, its parent organization gave up exclusive sponsorship of the campus network due to fiscal constraints. The newly independent Hillel joined with the Council of Jewish Federations — the umbrella organization for more than 189 Jewish federations and affiliated communities that is now part of the United Jewish Communities.

Together Hillel and the CJF launched the Jewish University Students Services Initiative.

The initiative outlined a number of long-term goals to increase local community involvement in and funding for Jewish campus life.

By the year 2002, the initiative was to supposed double Hillel’s total budget to $50 million (in 1994 dollars) and gradually increase federations’ contributions to cover 40 percent of Hillel’s budget.

It also asked federations to cooperate along regional lines to promote a “fair share” policy between communities with large Jewish populations and communities with large numbers of Jewish students.

Most of the 400,000 Jewish university students in North America are concentrated in about 100 schools, many located in areas outside Jewish population centers.

In many cases, however, federations in the 14 regional groupings experienced difficulty in collaborating. Small, intermediate and large federations found they had different priorities. And some colleges far from major cities felt that their needs came second to urban schools.

Now, Hillel reports that the regional consortium idea is being rethought to better reflect each federations’ needs and funding abilities..

The Jewish communal endorsement in 1994, Joel said, gave Hillel “the right to build relationships with the community,” to access federations’ expertise and membership — and to raise money.

With CJF’s recent merger with the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal, Hillel is today an agency of the UJC — North America’s most broad- based philanthropic and social service organization

Hillel’s fund-raising has flourished, with nearly two-thirds of Hillel’s current $37 million annual budget coming from private sources.

But the federation initiative has been less successful.

Some schools, such as Eastern Michigan University, have benefitted from the enthusiastic involvement of the local federation.

When Heicklen, a junior, first arrived on campus, Hillel was a “really small group” that was “just kind of there. They didn’t have a general direction.”

But with funding and attention from the Hillel’s International Center and the federations in Ann Arbor and Detroit, the campus Hillel was able to rent a house and hire a full-time professional, Alissa Parker.

“I think Hillel is definitely getting a better reputation on campus,” Heicklen said, attributing the change to the increased funding.

More money has allowed for more visible programming — lectures and movie nights, in addition to Shabbat dinners that attract as many as 100 students.

Whether the enthusiasm will carry over nationally has yet to be seen.

Only three years remain until 2002, when federations are expected to fulfill their more than $20 million share of Hillel’s increased budget.

Federations’ allocations to Hillel have increased from $10.5 million in 1994 to around $12 million today, with some federations reportedly giving more than required, said Jay Rubin, Hillel’s executive vice president and a former executive at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven.

But there are signs that “some federations have basically frozen support for Hillel or made minimal increases,” Rubin said.

Hillel directors surveyed by JTA said that federations could provide invaluable assistance in cultivating lay leadership as models of communal stewardship for Jewish students, in addition to helping raise funds.

“Hillel was on the top of everyone’s agenda in 1994,” Rubin said. “We don’t want to see people take their eyes off the prize and lose that focus.”

The UJC merger, however, holds the promise of a renewed focus on Jewish college students.

Hillel alone was noted in the section on outreach to college students in UJC’s initial platform statement on “Jewish Renaissance and Renewal,” one of four pillars undergirding the new national organization.

Although the pillar has yet to be erected, maintaining and expanding the UJC’s relationship to Hillel will likely be on the agenda.

“Actually, it’s one of the things we’re clearest about, “said Barry Shrage, executive vice president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who drafted the original platform statement.

Compared to some of the more complex issues and new initiatives being discussed, Shrage said, Hillel does not require “a lot of complicated experimentation.”

For Hillel, he said, “the answer is simple: more money.”

Shrage said the UJC and Hillel already have a funding strategy in place. The ways to bring more federation funds to Hillel, he said, is not through enforcing promises, but through building conviction.

As federations “realize that their whole future is wrapped up in being able to communicate” the renaissance idea, he said, then Hillel and other successful programs “will prosper.”

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