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Hillel Balances Donors and Students on Campus

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.“

But Jay, here’s where you’re totally correct: The most powerful donors in the national Jewish philanthropic world right now are very conservative, and they’re the ones driving the conversation from a certain angle. Where is everybody else? Where are the billionaire progressives who want to fund our Hillels and support the students in having smart conversations that bring together diverse populations? Where are the billionaire progressives who want to fund our programs, whereby students actually study at serious Israeli institutions of learning, and not just seven-week vacations on the beaches of Tel Aviv?

Where are the billionaire progressives who see how leadership development combined with Jewish education, mentorship and values-based experiences is the thing that will guarantee a committed next generation? Where are you? Reveal yourselves. And then call us! Let’s talk about Jewish college students. So many Hillel directors are ready to institute change. We’re sick of being held hostage to this national conversation. And we’re sick of trying to find you.

You tell the students that they (the Hillel professionals) don’t give a damn what you say. You tell the students that we (the Hillel professionals) are not accountable to them. You assert that we’re accountable to only the wealthy donors. Let’s get this right once and for all: We’re accountable to both. Hillel professionals are Hillel professionals because we care about what students say.

And we advance to directorships because we value the fine art of fundraising for Jewish causes. If we didn’t, then we’d go elsewhere with our careers. Put a student in front of me, and I will listen with my greatest depth and clarity. Put a wealthy donor in front of me, and I’ll make sure that his or her visions for Jewish life on campus are in keeping with the values of our particular organization and culture. Just taking anybody’s money? No way.

And furthermore, to everyone: Stop encouraging all these damn boycotts. The American Studies Association wants us to boycott Israel. Hillel International wants us to boycott Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. You want students to boycott Hillel. It’s absurd. And exhausting. And it doesn’t work. And, Jay, our students do walk away, every day, and we fight them on their decisions. Because typically, when they walk away, it’s not that they’re all creating these amazing alternative Jewish communities. In fact, when they leave Hillel, most of the time they’re not creating anything else. They’re just simply heading to Chipotle with their group of friends, possibly never looking back. We do our best never to let them leave. We’d appreciate you doing the same.

Rabbi Danielle Leshaw is the executive director of Hillel at Ohio University. Find her on Twitter, @RabbiDanielle, or at


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