Are We Overly Invested In Bricks And Mortar?


The ugly public battle between the University of Chicago Hillel and its parent organization, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, merits attention because it transcends the immediate issues of funding, independence, governance and power. (See Editorial, “Showdown At Chicago Hillel,” April 27.)

The conflict speaks to a wider struggle between younger and older approaches to sustaining meaningful Jewish organizations, and to the future of innovation in communal life.

The brief history up to now: Faced with the need to cut its budget by $100,000, the U. of C. Hillel board, led by executive director Daniel Libenson, 40, a rising star on the Hillel scene, proposed a savings of $155,000 by reducing administrative costs and maintenance of the Hillel building on the Hyde Park campus — charges controlled by the federation and assessed to the Hillel.

The federation, unique in that it controls the Hillels in the entire state of Illinois, advocated instead for reductions in Hillel personnel and programming. Libenson and his board refused, arguing that the key to the Hillel’s nationally acclaimed success was its programming, which emphasized individualized outreach efforts by staff members and student interns, and creative events — like the monthly mega-Shabbat dinners attracting up to 200 students — that took place at students’ apartments and other venues on campus.

The Hillel board, in a March 28 letter to the federation, sought to restructure its relationship with federation and make the Hillel an “independent entity,” asserting that federation left it “in the position of either having a building without a program or a program without a building.” And as Libenson told me, if faced with that difficult choice, he would have sacrificed the building, believing as strongly as he does that the major investment should be in getting out and engaging students.

He wasn’t given the choice, though.

On March 30, federation fired Libenson and his 17-member advisory board made up of faculty, leaders and five students, asserting its control over Hillel and noting its fiduciary responsibility to the community. In a letter to the Hillel board, federation noted that “your attempt to bootstrap yourself into a separate entity is utterly specious.”

Federation insiders believe Libenson and his supporters are unfairly portraying themselves as victims, expecting the charity to both set them free and continue funding their work.

Libenson, highly praised nationally as a visionary who helped transform a dying Hillel into an award-winning vibrant one in his six years on campus, has retained the support of his advisory board. Together they are in the process of raising funds and setting up “a new independent organization that will carry on the work of engaging uninvolved students in Jewish life that has been succeeding so successfully,” he wrote in an op-ed this past week in Haaretz, the Israeli daily.

It’s unfortunate that attempts to bridge the gap between the Hillel and federation failed, and that nasty charges and counter-charges have spilled into the public arena. There may well be a wasteful duplication of Jewish resources on the campus next fall. But the two programs might also prove to be an experimental lab in terms of what kind of Jewish engagement with college students proves more effective. And Libenson is convinced that with American Judaism in transition, campuses and communities need to adapt to new realities or be left behind.

Libenson compares what’s happening now in Jewish life to the kind of paradigm change taking place in business that is described in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” the popular book by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. In it the author speaks of “disruptive innovations,” referring to major shifts in the world of business that tend to come from new players in the field rather than from companies that have dominated a particular market.

An example cited is Kodak, which went bankrupt at a time when photography is increasingly part of people’s everyday life. As Libenson points out, “large companies become prisoners of their current customers,” and even though they recognize the need for change, “there is never a moment in time where it makes economic sense for them to divert resources from products that are selling well in order to invest enough in the more speculative disruptive innovation.”

By the time they do, it’s too late. (In the world of photography, a start-up like Instagram came along and was soon sold for a $1 billion.)

Libenson argues that a similar “revolution” is under way in Jewish life, and that big, slow-moving organizations, like many federations, need to recognize change on the horizon and adjust.

He notes, for example, that Jewish life on college campuses has changed radically since the days when Hillel was founded. Back then, Jews were uneasy on campus, and Hillel was a source of refuge, a place to feel comfortable socially and religiously. Today, though, that reality has “flipped for most Jewish students,” according to Libenson. He observes that the students are content on campus but wary of coming to Hillel, perceiving it as “a religious space, or a place where they don’t feel Jewish enough, or feel others are in control.”

Bottom line, they feel more comfortable on campus than in a Jewish setting.

So why, Libenson wonders, is the community invested in putting its financial resources into the bricks and mortar of a Hillel building, especially at a time when dollars are so hard to raise?

“It’s just not in accord with where Jewish students are today.”

He points out that when Shabbat dinners were held in the Hillel building on campus, 30 students would come. When the dinners were moved to the regular dining hall, which Hillel rented for the occasion, 200 would take part.

“It was a microcosm of what we were trying to do,” he explains, “with tables of 10 — a frat table here, a Birthright reunion table there, etc. — but together feeling part of a large Jewish community on campus.”

One can imagine that in adult communities where maintaining a large synagogue building can become a financial albatross, the notion of congregations sharing the physical space with each other will become more acceptable and appealing — particularly, Libenson says, in non-Orthodox communities where people have similar views on education and social experiences.

In practical terms, with Reform congregations focusing on Friday night services and Conservative congregants more likely to attend Shabbat morning, those issues can be resolved, too, if turf battles give way to pragmatism.

Of course there are a number of issues that would require creative solutions, but Libenson is making the wider and more profound point that our community needs to re-think its goals, strategies and approaches, and avoid the bind Clayton Christensen describes in “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

That bind happens when established companies — or in this case organizations — are slow to recognize the value in what smaller, new groups are doing, though future consumers do appreciate the innovation. And then the older group has trouble pivoting in time when it does catch on.

For a generation that in the last 20 years helped build a number of beautiful, modern Hillel facilities on campuses across the country, it is especially difficult to consider that a shift in student sensibilities and priorities may be making these buildings already passé. The same thing happens within congregations burdened by what has been called The Edifice Complex.

The lesson is clear, though. Pay close attention to where young people are, not just to where you want them to be.


was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at