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Last March, the Chicago federation fired Libenson and disbanded the Hillel’s advisory board after the board called for the federation to enter negotiations toward granting the Hillel independence. In an arrangement perhaps unique to Illinois, the Chicago federation owns the University of Chicago Hillel. The Hillel board threatened to resign if the federation declined to enter negotiations.
Upon dismissing the Hillel board and Libenson, the federation charged that Libenson and the board had mismanaged the Hillel’s finances.
Cohen, who has moderated the annual Latke-Hamantash Debate for each of the past 30 years, give or take, served on the Hillel board years ago and has friends who were among the group of Hillel board members that the federation dismissed. He got the job during the tenure of Rabbi Daniel Leifer, a former executive director of the Chicago Hillel. Leifer died in 1996. “Danny Leifer liked what I did, which was to make savage fun of everyone in the debate,” Cohen said. “I’ve done it ever since.”
Cohen said he was vacationing in Maine over the summer when he received two emails from faculty members saying they wouldn’t participate in the event’s 2012 iteration. The faculty members cited anger at the federation’s dismissal of Libenson and at Cohen’s own decision not to participate in the debate. Cohen told the Forward that his colleagues were misinformed: He hadn’t actually made up his mind at the time that he wouldn’t moderate, but their decisions helped sway him.
Cohen cited personal feelings among the reasons that he had initially objected to moderating this year’s debate. “I am loyal to my friends, and the federation in this really brutal way threw them all out, and they don’t want the Latke-Hamantash Debate to go on,” he said.
The tradition seemed doomed until earlier this semester, when a group of students from the Jewish fraternity AEPi asked Hillel to organize this year’s debate independently. Because of scheduling issues, the event could not be held until mid-February, but Cohen confirmed that he will participate.
Despite the loss of a marquee annual event, Hoffman said she was pleased that the students would be taking on the Latke-Hamantash event, presenting it as a move toward greater student involvement in driving programming. Hoffman also said that when the AEPi students approached her about taking on the event, “I couldn’t say yes fast enough.”