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No free dinner

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Rebecca Spence of the Forward reports that Jewish campus organizations are beginning to feel the financial crunch, to the point where they are starting to charge for what were once free dinners:

What Hillel and Chabad have both figured out is that one of the best ways to build Jewish community on college campuses is to host weekly Shabbat meals — and, crucially, to make sure they’re free. Such dinners have proliferated in recent years, with both Chabad and Hillel houses drawing students to break bread together, recite the Jewish prayers, and — the organizers hope — have a positive Jewish experience.

But, with financial woes mounting for Jewish organizations, the dinners that have become such a staple of Jewish campus life may not be free forever. In San Francisco, that city’s Hillel — which serves 12 area campuses — has had to start charging students for what was once an understood freebie. At $1.80, the charge is far from prohibitive, but it is symbolic of the changing equation.

Students, Hillel professionals say, are now being asked to take personal responsibility for their Jewish experience and, in doing so, grasp the depth of the financial crisis that the Jewish community — as well as the broader global community — is facing.

“It’s partly that we need the money, and it’s partly that we want students to understand the situation we’re in,” said Alon Shalev, San Francisco Hillel’s executive director. “Traditionally everything except for the Passover Seder has been free, and at some point we wanted the students to understand that we are in deep financial problems.”

As a result of the budget crunch, the San Francisco’s Hillel — which generally attracts anywhere from 30 to 80 students on any given Friday night — has also started cutting back on the meal itself. These days, Shalev said, they’re serving a lot more chicken, because it’s cheap as far as meat goes, and cookies have replaced pints of pareve ice cream.

Other Hillel professionals lauded the move as a step toward helping this generation of students — who are accustomed to taking advantage of free Jewish programs such as Birthright Israel, which gives young Jews all-expenses-paid trips to Israel — learn that somebody has to foot the bill for the experiences they may take for granted.

UPDATE: My main reaction to this piece is: I went to the wrong school… at Brown, we had to pay for Shabbat meals at Hillel. And that was when the economy was starting to boom back in the 90s.

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