Chicago Hillel Feud Gets Messier

Jewish Professors Object to Federation Firing of Board

New Group: Fired University of Chicago Hillel chief Daniel Libenson plans to start a new group for Jewish students at the school.
COURTESY DANIEL LIBENSON
New Group: Fired University of Chicago Hillel chief Daniel Libenson plans to start a new group for Jewish students at the school.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published May 04, 2012, issue of May 11, 2012.
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A group of Jewish professors at the University of Chicago is drawing up battle lines against the city’s Jewish federation in response to the federation’s firing of the entire leadership of the school’s campus Hillel. Meanwhile, students who are caught in the middle are seeking to avoid taking sides.

What began as a local budgeting dispute has now grown increasingly heated in some quarters. The Washington, D.C.-based umbrella group for Hillel, the national network of campus centers for Jewish college students, says it won’t recognize a new University of Chicago campus organization founded by the fired executive director of the campus Hillel. Meanwhile, in a April 18 letter to the federation, the Jewish University of Chicago professors have condemned the Jewish charity’s conduct.

“We find your actions disgraceful and unwelcome in our community,” the group of 30 professors wrote the Chicago federation. “Your choice to rule our local Hillel in an autocratic fashion overwhelms.”

In an unusual arrangement, Chicago’s Jewish federation, known as the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, or JUF, controls all campus Hillel centers in Illinois. Its decision to dismiss the executive director and advisory board of the University of Chicago Hillel in late March came after campus Hillel leaders demanded independence from the federation.

A newly formed group of University of Chicago Jewish students called the Jewish Student Assembly, meanwhile, won’t be backing the Hillel or the new group being started by the former Hillel leaders.

“The idea is that this assembly will be able to negotiate and work with the different organizations on campus,” said Doni Bloomfield, 21, a University of Chicago sophomore and newly elected executive chair of the new Jewish Student Assembly.

Dan Libenson, executive director of the Newberger Hillel Center at the University of Chicago, was dismissed along with the volunteer board on March 30. JUF took the action against the Hillel leaders after they threatened to resign in June if the federation did not agree to enter negotiations for a separation between the Hillel and the federation.

In its letter dismissing the Hillel board, the Chicago federation voiced a sense of betrayal at the Hillel’s efforts to separate. “It appears that the advisory committee and [Libenson] have been planning to separate from [the federation] while [Libenson] has been employed by [the federation],” wrote Harvey Barnett, a federation board member writing on behalf of the entire federation leadership. “We regard such conduct as a breach of the duties of loyalty owed to [the federation].”

Nearly all other campus Hillels in North America are independent not-for-profit organizations with their own boards and endowments. But Hillels throughout Illinois are owned directly by the Chicago federation and operated through a federation agency. The University of Chicago Hillel’s building has been federation property since 2000; its board has been without independent status since 2005.


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