Hillel Balances Donors and Students on Campus

Last Thing Jewish Group Needs Is Fleeing Students

Not Leaving: Hillel students from Ohio University.
Ohio University Hillel
Not Leaving: Hillel students from Ohio University.

By Danielle Leshaw

Published March 31, 2014, issue of April 04, 2014.
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Jay Michaelson’s recent column in these pages, “Only One Way to Change Hillel: Leave,” reveals a number of damaging yet popular misconceptions about the Hillel world and the role of donors in dictating the content of our programming. Jay, since you referred to my own recent essay here, “The Hillel Kids are All Right,” I’m happy, and eager, to continue the conversation.

Here’s some very important news: We’re not all beholden to Israel-fixated donors. Many of us have donors that trust our instincts and that encourage dialogue with our students, with the campus community and with larger trends in American Judaism. Many of us have donors who are true partners in working with students. And then there are the other donors — the ones who think they know more than we do (which they don’t), and the ones that think that they should be directing (they shouldn’t), or the ones that threaten us with pulling their funding.

Thankfully, some of us are in the position to ignore their pushy advice or their threats. Many of us say, “No, thanks!” Several of us in the Hillel world are proud of how we’ve walked away from some of our donors. And we’ll do so again if necessary — not just regarding Israel programs or policy, but also how to best build our buildings, or how to implement our staffing structures, or how to use our resources to serve diverse Jewish student populations. Our Hillel at Ohio University board members are carefully selected, not for the millions of dollars they can give our Hillel, but because of their love, devotion and wisdom when it comes to Jewish life on campus.

Another point of clarification: Almost all the Hillels are independent organizations with our own tax identification numbers, our own board of directors, our own bylaws and our own tax accountants. Some Hillels are more closely linked with their nearby federations, but the majority are stand-alone, non-for-profit religious organizations. As a result, we are all hired and fired by our local board of directors. While we each have an affiliation agreement with Hillel International, there is nothing in that affiliation agreement to indicate that anybody is going to get fired by the CEO of the organization.

The threats that you speak of — that directors might get fired if we don’t toe a line — are few and, thankfully, far between. Why? Because we’re actually pretty skilled at influencing who serves on each of our boards — not just for our own job security, but also to ensure that we have the right people to weather storms and watch the changing trends in this ever-shifting dynamic called “the next generation.“

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