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Though Libenson served as executive director of the University of Chicago Hillel, he was actually an employee of the federation. And though the University of Chicago Hillel’s volunteer leadership considered itself a board of directors, it was technically a committee of the Chicago federation.
Chicago’s federation is known for the high level of control it maintains over the not-for-profits it funds. Steven Nasatir, the JUF’s executive director, is widely seen as one of the most powerful CEOs in the federation system and known for a highly centralized management style.
Libenson, 42, took on the campus Hillel executive director post in 2006. Upon his firing, he said that he and the board planned to launch a new organization on the University of Chicago campus to continue their work with the school’s Jewish community. According to Libenson, that organization, called Jewish University, has now been recognized by the University of Chicago.
He hasn’t had the same success with Hillel’s D.C.-based international umbrella group. In an undated open letter, Hillel’s president and CEO, Wayne Firestone, said that his organization would recognize only the JUF-owned campus Hillel, not Libenson’s startup.
“We made that statement to reassure our federation partners that we were not going to revoke our affiliation with them and grant it on another competing organization,” said Dennis Kirschbaum, associate vice-president for campus services at the Hillel umbrella group. “The existing affiliate is our affiliate, and we’re not going to recognize another affiliate at the University of Chicago.”
Libenson received Hillel’s Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence Award in 2008. Kirschbaum called it “pretty much the highest award we give to somebody in our field.” He continued: “It’s no secret that we thought he was doing good work.”
At the University of Chicago campus, meanwhile, students and professors have begun to weigh in on the JUF’s move. The professors’ scathing letter to the JUF was signed by several distinguished faculty members, including Kenneth S. Polonsky, dean of the Pritzker School of Medicine and the Division of the Biological Sciences, Martha C. Nussbaum, a distinguished professor of law and ethics, and physicist and mathematics professor Leo Kadanoff.
The letter harshly criticized both the federation’s dismissal of Libenson and the manner of his dismissal. “[W]e see your actions as a total abdication of Jewish values…” the professors wrote. “[W]e hereby request in the strongest possible terms that you agree to the board’s request for mediation with the ultimate aim of restoring University of Chicago Hillel’s independence.”
University of Chicago students appear to be taking a more measured approach. At a meeting on April 30, the newly formed Jewish Student Assembly elected board members to act on behalf of Jewish students in their interactions with both Hillel and Libenson’s new organization.
Bloomfield, the executive chair, said that the group wasn’t taking sides in the debate over the JUF takeover of the Hillel, and favored neither Libenson’s new group nor the campus Hillel. “I think that it’s useful to have a forum of students directly working on these issues,” Bloomfield said. “That’s the case even if we think that these organizations are the most competent in the world.”
The Jewish student leaders’ noncommittal tone was in line with an earlier letter to JUF chief Nasatir from four University of Chicago Jewish students who had been supportive of Libenson. Though their letter mentioned a campus effort to organize a student boycott of the federation, it did not explicitly endorse that effort.
In his April 17 response to the student letter, Nasatir praised the students and defended the JUF’s actions.
“If we didn’t care so much [about Hillel], the Federation would not have invested $4 million in Hillel at the University of Chicago since we assumed full responsibility for it a decade ago,” Nasatir wrote. “And we would not have spent so much time and effort during the past year to avoid the separation with Dan and the advisory committee, which we neither desired nor initiated.”