Chicago Hillel Feud Scraps Traditional Food 'Fight'

Campus 'Latkes Vs. Hamentashen' Debate Is Victim of Squabble

No Fight Daniel Libenson, ousted University of Chicago Hillel chief, speaks at the college’s annual latke-vs.-hamentashen debate. The event was postponed amid turmoil over his firing.
No Fight Daniel Libenson, ousted University of Chicago Hillel chief, speaks at the college’s annual latke-vs.-hamentashen debate. The event was postponed amid turmoil over his firing.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 28, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
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Which are better, latkes or Hamantashen? This year, continued anger among the University of Chicago faculty over the Chicago Jewish federation’s takeover of the campus Hillel means that students there will have to wait a few extra months to find out.

For each of the past 66 years, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, professors at the University of Chicago have held a mock-serious debate in front of increasingly large crowds, weighing the merits of the two traditional Jewish holiday foods. Not so this semester. Professors who had committed to the event dropped out over the summer, citing anger over the federation’s firing of the Hillel director and the dismissal of the Hillel board.

“It’s just a stupidly brutal thing to do, and it certainly pissed me off,” said Ted Cohen, a University of Chicago philosophy professor and the Latke-Hamantash Debate’s longtime moderator, of the way the federation handled the Hillel director’s firing.

Cohen’s debate, scheduled originally for November 20, is a major event on the University of Chicago’s Jewish calendar. It filled a 1,000-seat venue on the University of Chicago campus last year, and has been covered by The New York Times and taken on the road for out-of-state showdowns. Cohen will moderate a Latke-Hamantash Debate this academic year, albeit months later, in February. And Hillel itself, which created the event and has sponsored it for more than half a century, won’t have a role.

The disruption around Latke-Hamantash comes as the campus Jewish organizations at the University of Chicago struggle to return to normalcy after the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago fired Hillel’s executive director, Daniel Libenson, last March and dismissed his board.

Since then, Libenson and his board have split off to form jU, a new campus organization that is operating in competition with Hillel. The Hillel, meanwhile, is on its second interim executive director. And the Jewish Student Assembly, a student group founded to defend student interests amid the turmoil, has “gone into hibernation,” according to its former leader.

“Students are remarkably resilient,” said Andrea Hoffman, the current interim executive director of the school’s Hillel.


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