Showdown At Chicago Hillel


One of the few undisputed facts in the bitter clash between the University of Chicago’s Hillel director and board, on the one hand, and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago that operates it, on the other, is that the school’s Hillel program was one of the best in the country.

“Was” because the federation has fired Daniel Libenson, the executive director of the Hillel, along with his 17-member advisory board, in a showdown over issues of power, independence and funding.

Libenson, 40, is a star in the Jewish communal world, widely seen as an effective visionary who helped transform a dying Hillel at the Hyde Park campus into a vibrant one by changing the model of the program over the last six years.

A Harvard-trained attorney, Libenson was the recipient of an Avi Chai Fellowship and his was one of only three Hillels in the country to receive a Covenant Foundation Signature Grant.

His goal has been to reach each of the University of Chicago’s approximately 800 Jewish students through an individualized approach, based on the outreach efforts of staff members and student interns, and by offering creative programs that take place at students’ apartments and other campus sites. Monthly mega-Shabbat dinners attract 200 students, and the Hillel has the highest percentage of Birthright Israel registration nationally, with about one in five Jewish students on campus visiting Israel through Hillel.

The key, Libenson told The Jewish Week, is not to make the Hillel a kind of membership club, as it has been traditionally, but to take Hillel to the students, establishing relationships as well with those who don’t attend.

For Libenson, and his supportive board made up of a dozen faculty members and lay leaders and five students, the Hillel building itself was much less of a priority than was programming and personnel. So when the leaders of federation, which operates the 17 Hillels throughout Illinois — the only such arrangement in the country — sought major budget cuts to reduce the University of Chicago Hillel’s ongoing deficit, Libenson and his board recommended ways of trimming the overhead involved in maintaining the Hillel building. Any other type of reduction, they said, would cut into programming and personnel, the key to their success.

Asked to come up with $100,000 in reductions, the board came up with $155,000, according to members, based on competitive bids to reduce the cost of maintenance, IT support, phones, heating, etc. But the federation said no, they didn’t operate that way.

Each side has a very different take on the dollars at issue; federation says its funding has been key, portraying Hillel as ungrateful. The Hillel supporters say federation is more concerned about the value of the Hillel building than of the Hillel program.

In the end it came down to an independent Hillel director and board wanting more autonomy to sustain and expand its creative programming, and a resistant federation that sought to maintain centralized control as a means of fiduciary responsibility to their donors.

Libenson cites the best-selling book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, which posits that successful, established companies need to know when to abandon traditional practices in favor of “disruptive” advancement. The message: federations and other mainstream Jewish organizations should be willing to invest in creative models to stay ahead of the curve, and relevant.

Other communities have found ways to resolve this type of conflict. In Baltimore, when the federation gave up control of the Hillels in the area a few years ago, they established a policy that has the Hillels receive major funds from the federation while allowing them autonomy over their boards and directors.

For now, Libenson, with the support of his board, plans to start a new, independent Jewish organization on the University of Chicago campus and continue his programming. Federation has put an interim director in place at the Hillel. So the two groups will be in competition.

It could prove to be a wasteful duplication of resources or an on-campus experiment in what model of engagement works best for Jewish college students today.

We’ll be watching.