This semester, Tammy Schachet-Briskin transformed a Hofstra University dance studio into a stage for Jewish identity.
Schachet-Briskin is a “continuity fellow” at Hofstra Hillel, an outreach worker whose job it is to meet students and find ways to involve them in Jewish life.
For a group of dance majors that Schachet-Briskin met, the way was through dance. At her suggestion, the students choreographed and performed a dance piece expressing what Judaism meant to them.
Schachet-Briskin doubts any of the troupe would have gotten involved in other Hillel activities. “Dance is their priority.” Now, the project has generated “pride and excitement that they can take something they love and combine it with who they are,” she said.
That pride and excitement in Jewish identity has become a priority for Hillels around the country, as they pick up on communal concerns over assimilation and intermarriage.
But making Jews is more time-consuming and staff-intensive than making kosher meals and Shabbat services.
And now, after more than 25 years of talking about problems of Jewish life on campus, federations are being asked to pay up – or shut up.
This month, they are examining a proposal to double their allocations to college campuses from $10 million to $20 million annually.
The proposal, which was released at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, will be voted on by the CJF Board of Delegates on Jan. 31.
It consists only of guidelines and recommendations, which means federations will be free to ignore the proposed increases, which are to be phased in over seven years.
But with attention being focused on Jewish identity, the burden may be shifting to those who choose to ignore college students.
A CJF report issued early this year declared the campus “a key gateway opportunity for strengthening Jewish identity.”
And it stressed the need for Schachet-Briskin’s sort of work in “creating Jewish pride” through welcoming “entry points to Jewish involvement.”
The report estimated that such programs could reach some 60 percent of the Jewish student body otherwise untouched by traditional Hillel activities.
This shift in Hillel’s orientation comes as the decades-old system in which B’nai B’rith took Hillel under its wings has collapsed.
Once the largest Jewish service and fraternal organization, B’nai B’rith in recent years has slashed its contributions to national Hillel by almost $2 million, or 50 percent.
Some Hillel programs were closed; others were left reeling, Hillel directors began to turn their attention away from students to concentrate on fund- raising.
Hillel has now struck off independently from B’nai B’rith, reconstituting itself as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, an independent organization now finding a place within the federation system.
Hillel’s newly independent status enabled CJF to propose the new funding plan. It also means that Hillel will be free to raise additional funds on its own.
Besides the federation money, another $15 million comes to campus services from other sources, including local Hillel fund-raising. Hillel hopes to double that amount, as well.
Federations are not only being asked to play more, but also to rethink the way they approach the campus.
Traditionally, federations have viewed campus life as a local issue.
They looked after campuses in their own backyard, and sent a small amount of money to national Hillel to help out campuses without local federations.
The CJF plan replaces this patchwork system with precise dollar targets for each local federation. The plan gives each federation a share based on the size of its campaign and population.
Each federation gets two bills – one for national Hillel, and one for its local and regional campuses.
The objective is to even out the funding. Currently, some federations allocate more than 7 percent of their campaign revenue to college services, and some allocate none. The national average is 1.5 percent, according to the report.
Many of these inequities come from the tendency to pay attention to the campuses in town, rather than to the students who grew up in town and are now studying elsewhere.
In Texas, for example, the Austin campus of the University of Texas draws 3,500 Jewish students. For Austin, whose entire Jewish population in only slightly lager than that, the result is a hefty bill. Some 2.5. percent of its campaign, or $14,500, is allocated to campus services.
Presumably, many of these students come from Dallas, a city with about 10 times as many Jews as Austin. And yet, proportionate to the size of its campaign, Dallas allocates to campus services barely a quarter as much as Austin.
The major school in Dallas – Southern Methodist University – attracts only 250 Jewish students.
The CJF plan calls on Dallas to raise its campus allocation by $17,000 for each of the next seven years.
“For this community, that is a very large growth rate for dollars for one service,” said Avrum Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Grater Dallas.
If Dallas does go along with the CJF plan, students at Austin will be the primary beneficiaries.
That is because the CJF plan has federations getting together on a regional basis to discuss allocations.
Federations will make their own judgments of how to divide their campus allocations between local campuses and a regional funding pool. The federations sitting around the regional table would then divide up that money.
“We’re not looking in this regional concept to build up cost-consuming infrastructures,” said Richard Joel, international director of Hillel.
“We are saying that the Jewish community has to look a little more broadly on how they deliver services on campus and shouldn’t look only in their backyard,” he said.
The regionalization will not eliminate all inequities, since some regions have more college campuses than others. Much of the increased funding to national Hillel will be used to remedy this imbalance.
Dallas is not the only federation affected by the new regional thinking and budgeting.
At the UJA-Federation of New York, “the conclusion was always that our responsibility was to serve the campuses in our eight-county service area,” said Jeffrey Solomon, chief operating officer for program services.
Overlooked and funded were more than an estimated 27,000 students studying on campuses in upstate New York, where the Jewish population totals only 80,000.
Particularly at state schools, such as that State University of New York at Binghamton, most of the Jewish students come from New York City.
“How can you expect a community to take care of students that outnumber them?” asks Avi Schwartz, president of Binghamton’s Jewish Student Union, referring to the local Binghamton community.
Schwartz, who is from Long Island, said four-fifths of his executive board is from the New York City area.
“I definitely think some kind of allocation would be beneficial,” he said.
Solomon said the new CJF report is moving his federation to accept the idea that “New York college students, from our eight-county area, wind up in a number of campuses, and that there is a more collective responsibility toward serving those students.”
As the largest federation, and having until now kept its sights close to home, the New York federation faces the largest single bill under the new plan. Though it raises 16.49 percent of the total national federation campaigns, it accounts for only 11.44 percent of allocations to campuses.
Solomon acknowledged that in a previous example of federations signing on to a national plan of “collective responsibility,” New York was a clear beneficiary.
That was for the arrangement where federation resettling relatively fewer immigrants for the former Soviet Union have been sending money out of town to aid communities resettling disproportionately more.
New York City, where half the new arrivals settle, was the biggest single beneficiary of this program.
“We have to be consistent,” said Solomon. “If we’re going to make college students the priority the national community believes they should become, we have to take a look at how we reorder priorities and how we excite the philanthropic community to the process.”
The new campus funds called for in the CJF plan do not necessarily have to come from the regular allocations process.
Some federation leaders are suggesting that college programming might attract endowment money.
And as New York tallies up its figures next year, it can count in the $225,000, three-year special grant from the federation’s New York Jewish Continuity Commission that employs five part-time “continuity fellows” on area campuses – including Schachet Briskin.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.