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Jewish Agency, Hillel Partnering for College-age Jews in the FSU

December 20, 2006
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In an effort to end overlap between the two groups, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Jewish Agency are joining forces to form one combined organization serving college-age Jews in the former Soviet Union. The new arrangement also will allow Hillel to move onto college campuses, where it can reach out to unaffiliated Jewish students.

Moscow, which has seen diminishing numbers participating in Hillel and Jewish Agency activities, will be one of the five cities in the pilot program when it begins in January. The other four cities have yet to be determined.

After an 18-month pilot, the partnership will be extended to the rest of the former Soviet Union.

Hillel leaders say the same young Jews now tend to frequent both Hillel and Jewish Agency activities.

“We have students bouncing around between the two organizations,” said Aaron Goldberg, director of Hillel’s international division. “We thought we should bring them together, with the money funneled through Hillel, and together we’ll create a larger organization with greater outreach and more professionals.”

The deal, sealed Dec. 10, will double Hillel’s budget for the region to $2.7 million by 2008. Hillel’s current budget of $1.5 million for its 27 clubs in the former Soviet Union has not changed in five years despite rising costs.

Hillel will remain in charge of operations and programmatic decisions. The Jewish Agency will cease its separate college-age activities and send its madrichim, or Israeli youth counselors, to serve the Hillel clubs.

The two groups’ summer camps in the region also will be combined starting in 2007. All branches will report to Hillel’s new Russia director, a position yet to be filled.

The relationship involves three other partners besides the Jewish Agency and Hillel. They are the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which have been working together in the former Soviet Union for more than a decade, and the Chais Family Foundation.

All but Hillel will provide $500,000 each for 2007, with Hillel giving $400,000. Those figures will shift to $600,000 and $300,000 by ’08.

The budget increase will enable Hillel to focus more on professional development for its local staff, including raising salaries to encourage more young Jews to go into the field.

We need to make sure that we compensate them, so we don’t lose this young passion and energy,” Goldberg said.

Unlike North America, where Hillel is primarily a campus-based organization, Hillel clubs in the former Soviet Union are off campus and open to young Jews up to the age of 30, whether or not they are students.

Bringing the Jewish Agency into the partnership confirms the agency’s shift in focus in the former Soviet Union from aliyah, or immigration to Israel, to recognizing that most Jews in the former Soviet Union will remain there.

Thus the agency’s role will become, as it is in other diaspora communities, to ensure that Israel remains a central element in post-Soviet Jewish programming, said Alan Hoffman, director general of the Jewish Agency’s education division.

That task is easier in the post-Soviet nations, he points out, because of strong ethnic loyalties that already exist, as well as the fact that most Jews there have close relatives living in Israel.

Hoffman called the formal cooperation by the organizations “historic” for the region, although it is modeled on how Hillel works in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

Avraham Infeld, former president of Hillel International, was instrumental in brokering the partnership and will chair its steering committee during the pilot period.

He said the increased funding will allow Hillel to address the particular challenge of Moscow, with some 25,000 Jewish students.

Talking about the dwindling numbers from the Russian capital participating in Hillel and Jewish Agency activities, Infeld said, “It’s a very cosmopolitan city, there’s so much competing for students’ time. We have to work differently there.”

Cooperating more closely with the Jewish Agency is a second priority, he said, that will enable Hillel programs to focus more effectively on Israel.

Infeld said he hopes to restore some funding to the birthright israel program, which cut back last year on the number of students it took to the Jewish state from the former Soviet Union, and keep the returnees from birthright and other Israel programs involved in the Jewish community.

Chabad also offers programs for college-age students in the former Soviet Union that often compete directly with Hillel.

Unlike North America, where Chabad campus programs are tacitly open to anyone who identifies Jewishly, Chabad in the former Soviet Union is focused on those who are Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law — that is, born of a Jewish mother. Conversion is virtually unknown in the region. Hillel welcomes anyone who identifies as Jewish.

The unintended result is that in some cities, young people with Jewish mothers gravitate to Chabad, while those with non-Jewish mothers go to Hillel.

Infeld said Hillel will work “very hard” to change that, but as long as Chabad in the former Soviet Union continues to work only with halachic Jews, and requires that its staff be observant, he does not envision real cooperation.

“We have not yet built a relationship,” he said, “and I don’t see how it’s going to work.”

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