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Behind the Headlines: Hillel Moving into New Era of Outreach, Organization

December 24, 1993
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The Hillel outreach director at the University of Pennsylvania considers her Chanukah efforts a success, although the menorah-lighting and latke party she sponsored was not heavily attended.

Her efforts were successful, she said, because in dormitory rooms all over campus Jewish students lit the menorahs they received in Chanukah packages distributed by Hillel, the Jewish students organization, and celebrated the holiday together at small parties.

In the past, success would have been measured by the number of students who came through Hillel’s door.

Now Hillel professionals are endeavoring to reach students “where they are” and “touch their lives Jewishly,” said a speaker at a workshop at Hillel’s annual conference, held Dec. 19 to 23 in Florham Park, N.J. It is one of many shifts taking place at every level of Hillel today.

Hillel, which is not affiliated with any single religious movement, has come up hard against the demographic fact that students who feel a strong connection to American Jewish life are a minority and an ever-shrinking part of the community.

In addition, Hillel’s longtime sponsor, B’nai B’rith International, has cut funding dramatically in recent years.

So Hillel is shifting from one era into another as it reworks its strategy for reaching Jewish students, reshapes its organizational structure and looks for new sources of funding.

Richard Joel, Hillel’s international director, described the new approach on campuses as one of “tradition and triage.”

The tradition track will offer opportunities to deepen knowledge and involvement to students who already consider their Jewish identity central.

Triage is for the far-larger segment of the Jewish student population, to “provide Jewish connectors to a large number of students, to engage them and make them feel that it matters,” Joel said.


“These students can engage, but on their terms. We have to meet them and give them comfortable points of entry” into Jewish activities, he said in a speech to the 190 Hillel professionals at the conference.

University students are typically reluctant to cross the Hillel office threshold, said many at the conference. There are numerous factors, they said.

Students, in general, are often unenthusiastic about identifying Jewishly.

They also have a wide range of extracurricular activities from which to choose and feel pressured to select those activities that will help in their search for jobs.

“We deal successfully with a core group of student activists, but there are a lot of Jews who are identity-ambivalent and have questions about affiliating,” Rabbi William Rudolph, associate international director of Hillel, said.

“Like the rest of the Jewish community, we serve the people who come to us wanting to be served,” Joel said in an interview, “but that’s only half the job.”

One Hillel campus professional explained it this way: “Students don’t want to be part of Hillel, but they do want to do something Jewish. We need to ask them to do one thing, not to join the organization or be ‘super-Jew.'”

According to Lawrence Sternberg, associate director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, which is working as a consultant to Hillel, the change in approach is a fundamental break from the way Hillel and other Jewish groups operate.

“This is about touching them and getting them to own something of their Jewishness,” he said at a workshop on outreach.

“The goal is to break out of patterns that Hillel is stuck with and to motivate, enable and empower people who don’t normally cross the threshold into the institution,” said Sternberg.

One way to effect that change, said Joel, will be to hire outreach workers on almost all of the 105 campuses on which Hillel has paid staff.

Their task will be full-time outreach, which will free the Hillel chapter directors for the fund raising and board-building that are growing parts of their job.


In Florida, for example, Hillel is hiring 20 students on different campuses, some of which have no other Hillel presence, to work 10 or 12 hours a week making one-on-one contact with other Jewish students to find out what Hillel can do for them.

It is also a new era for Hillel funding.

While B’nai B’rith historically provided the lion’s share, that organization’s own financial woes have forced it to cut all but $1.5 million to $2 million a year in direct and indirect subsidies to Hillel — less than 10 percent of the student group’s approximately $20 million annual budget.

B’nai Brith’s contribution includes the rental value of offices at its headquarters in Washington that Hillel uses.

Today federations around the country are the largest single source of money for Hillel, providing about $8.5 million a year, most of it in direct aid to individual campus Hillel chapters, said Joel.

The Council of Jewish Federations, the national umbrella body for local federations, plans to double that amount in the next five years, according to Michael Rukin, chairman of CJF’s Hillel Commission.

Overall, Joel said he wants to increase Hillel’s budget within five years to $35 million.

A third source of funding is also being formed. The Fund for Jewish Campus Life, chaired by Edgar Bronfman, is being developed to solicit support from philanthropic heavyweights.

The shift in funding sources is reflected in Hillel’s new name, from B’nai B’rith Hillel to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, as well as in its corporate structure.

Hillel’s board of directors was, until recently, primarily the same as B’nai Brith’s leadership.

A new board is being formed. Although it will include members of B’nai B’rith and the Council of Jewish Federations, it will be the exclusive province of neither, said Joel.

Hillel will “not be taking marching orders from anyone,” he said.

Of the changes Hillel is undertaking, Joel said, “If this is a noble experiment where we learn what we can’t do, we’ll know soon. We’re prepared to take that challenge.”

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