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Hillel Faces New Campus Challenge: a New President to Lead Its Mission

December 10, 2002
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The organization whose CEO is praised as a “guru,” “Svengali” and “pied piper” is now in the position of having to determine its direction without him.

For more than 14 years, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has thrived under the leadership of Richard Joel, who last week accepted an offer from Yeshiva University to become its next president.

“I’m not leaving Hillel, I’m going to Yeshiva,” Joel told JTA last Friday, calling his move an opportunity for fueling “Jewish renaissance.”

Joel’s move comes as college campuses, where Hillel is the central Jewish organization, have taken on a new urgency in American Jewish life.

The two-year-old Palestinian uprising has stirred a wave of activism on campuses across North America, with Jewish students buffeted by anti-Israel and in some cases, anti-Semitic, activity.

Even before the latest wave of activism, campuses had garnered increasing attention by Jewish organizations over the past decade, when, amid reports of rising assimilation, the student population became a prime target for intervention.

“It’s a vital connecting point between youth and adulthood where many opinions and values get shaped,” said Jay Rubin, Hillel’s executive vice president.

Hillel’s national and regional staff insist that Joel’s legacy will outlive his tenure, and that his successor will expand the well-articulated vision in place.

But it is clear the group faces a major challenge in replacing him.

“We need to think about the direction of Hillel and the type of leadership that we want for the future,” said Marlene Post, a member of Hillel’s board of directors. “You don’t know who to search for until you know what you’re looking for for the organization.”

Under Joel, Hillel transformed its presence on campus from a local chapel into a full-service Jewish community center boasting a theme of Jewish renaissance.

And as an international organization, it ballooned, with 500 affiliates and more than 600 personnel.

In 1994, Hillel gained independence from B’nai B’rith — its parent organization since 1925, two years after Hillel’s founding — and funds from the North American federation system.

Ten years ago, its budget equaled $15 million, with about $4 million from B’nai B’rith. Hillel’s budget today tops $50 million, with $14 million in revenues from the North American federation system.

Joel brought on board major philanthropists such as Michael Steinhardt, Edgar Bronfman, and Lynn and the late Charles Schusterman — and with them, dollars and prestige.

During his tenure, Hillel partnered with Birthright Israel, the free trip to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds who had never been on an organized trip, and launched the Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps, a group of recent college graduates who try to find unaffiliated Jews and draw them to Judaism and Jewish events.

Hillel also expanded to the former Soviet Union and South America, Joel is known for his skilled management, magnetism and personal warmth.

But it was his clarity of vision — and use of language to transmit it — that helped Hillel flourish, according to many observers.

Joel coined catch phrases — like “Jews doing Jewish” — to underscore his end game, “Jewish renaissance.”

He created a language and culture that spilled through the ranks of Hillel, and even surfaced in other Jewish organizations, with the North American federation system picking up the term “Jewish renaissance” to refer to a new infusion of Jewish identity and practice.

According to Bronfman, chairman of the Hillel International Board of Governors, Joel changed Hillel from “a place where real people wouldn’t be seen dead at to a place where Jews want to go.”

Still, Hillel doesn’t appeal to all the Jews on campus.

“There are a lot of students that feel there’s a certain kind of student that goes to Hillel — someone who grew up Jewishly active, part of youth movements,” and that students who don’t come to school affiliated “often don’t feel that Hillel is a place where they feel comfortable,” said Daniela Gerson, the 25-year-old editor of New Voices, a national magazine written for Jewish college students.

Gerson graduated from Brown University in May 2000.

Organizationally speaking, most applaud today’s Hillel.

Joel fashioned “a phoenix of an organization that now shares center stage in the Jewish world,” said Neil Moss, chairman of the board of directors.

In fact, Carl Sheingold, director of the Fisher-Bernstein Institute for Leadership Development in Jewish Philanthropy at Brandeis University, chose Hillel as a case study for organizational renovation, naming Joel “arguably the most effective” CEO in the Jewish professional world.

But as Hillel looks for a replacement, Sheingold warns organizations against trying to recreate a past leader, which sets unrealistic expectations.

Joel is expected to stay with Hillel through the spring of 2003, at which time he will take up his post at Yeshiva University.

Hillel has assembled a search committee of 12 members, representing its philanthropists, national and regional staff and student activists.

Bronfman said he wants a successor “who will share our vision” — of “doing Jewish” and pro-Israel advocacy.

The new hire should be someone “who’s young and strong and knows how to inspire young people,” he said.

“I don’t see Hillel changing that much. We need to keep doing what we’re doing.”

No short list of prospects is yet in the offing, Bronfman said, and speculated it could take from one to sixth months to find a new president.

Meanwhile, the group has plenty of immediate concerns.

“I think the biggest challenge we’re facing is our growth. The more you grow, and we’ve been growing rapidly, the more expensive it gets,” Bronfman said, citing, for example, the exuberance of Birthright alumni, demanding follow-up services from Hillel.

But for now, it maintains its direction.

“Richard has plenty of leftover vision,” Rubin said, naming agenda items such as strengthening Hillel’s 27 groups in the former Soviet Union, expanding activities at Israeli universities and the impending launch of two chapters in Brazil.

Hillel’s first priority is its domestic role, followed by its work in the former Soviet Union, Bronfman said. Expanding into Europe is also a consideration.

Yevgenia Mikhaleva, Hillel regional representative for Russia, Central Asia and Caucasus, said Joel was “instrumental in bringing Hillel to the former Soviet Union.”

“It was Richard’s persona, his speakers talent and business approach that allowed international Hillel to evolve into a highly professional and successful operation,” Mikhaleva said.

Hillel staff and activists believe there’s enough momentum to carry the organization forward.

“It’s less about Richard than about the personality behind Hillel and a lot of what he’s trained us to do,” Simon Ariel, executive director of Hillel at George Washington University in Washington, said, citing Joel’s lesson to avoid the “mediocrity” that can plague nonprofits.

“Richard’s a smart guy and he created an international organization that will be able to stand and strengthen itself even as he moves on to another position.”

Seth Goldstein, a 24-year-old law student at New York University and former aide to Joel as a Bronfman fellow, is one of many who agrees.

“Richard never allowed it to be about him,” Goldstein said. “He always focused entirely on the product, and the product was Jewish renaissance, and the product is the students, and he really helped fashion that renaissance and it endures.”

But for many student activists — who would crowd “Late Night with Richard Joel” conference sessions to snare a few moments with their leader — the distinction between Joel and Hillel is blurry.

“With Richard Joel, you have this role model and almost father figure,” said Alison Siegel, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is co-president of the Hillel Leadership Council.

“I think the students who are active enough to have a sense of what’s going on are really shocked,” Siegel said. “I think people know that nothing major’s going to change overnight, but I think they’re concerned about where things will go,” she said, describing how programs at her school stem from Joel’s approach to outreach to Jews on campus.

For her part, Siegel is hoping for a personable successor to “keep things going pretty much the way they’re going.”

“We’re seeing a lot of students discover their Jewish identity while they’re in college and I think it would be a shame to lose any of that.” For his part, Joel has faith in the future.

“There is lots of room for new visions that my successor and her partners will devise for themselves, and I take great pleasure in standing from a distance and cheering them on,” he said.

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