The crunch on campus: Hard financial times hit local Hillel chapters

The plummeting economy, perhaps compounded by the Bernard Madoff scandal, has taken a bite out of the world’s pre-eminent Jewish collegiate organization, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

“We feel like the rug is being pulled out from under us, that the magic carpet we’ve been flying on is gone,” said Alon Shalev, director of San Francisco Hillel.

Hillel houses here and around the country are feeling an economic pinch. But San Francisco Hillel is being hit particularly hard — at the same time the agency has seen flourishing growth, it’s anticipating a 30 percent drop in donations this school year.

As recently as six months ago, Shalev intended to add a rabbi or a senior Jewish educator to his six-person staff.

That idea was yanked off the table when the economy tanked, Shalev said. “Now, I’m thinking: Can I even maintain the staff I have for the next school year?”

Other Hillels are also expecting smaller budgets due to an anticipated decrease in contributions.

Hillel at Stanford is expecting a 10 percent drop in contributions for the current fiscal year, and Santa Cruz Hillel anticipates a $25,000 drop in funding (about 9 percent of its budget), according to director Rick Zinman.

Berkeley Hillel has yet to configure its cutbacks because its executive director recently left, and the interim director, Rabbi Dorothy Richman, has not yet made any budgetary decisions.

At S.F. Hillel, the budget for the upcoming school year will be finalized in April, and Shalev is hoping to keep all of his staff.

In the meantime, he has already reduced his programming budget, eliminating funds for speakers and for the annual springtime on-campus concert featuring an Israeli musician.


Stanford students began cooking Shabbat dinner last week at Hillel to save money on catering. They are, from left, Natalie Goodis, Jacob Boehm and Joe Gettinger. photo | courtesy of hillel at Stanford

Shalev also has begun asking students who come for Shabbat supper to contribute $1.80, whereas previously there was no charge. And to save money on food costs, Hillel is serving less meat to the nearly 80 students who attend Shabbat dinner each week.


Likewise, Hillel at Stanford is looking for ways to save money without resorting to layoffs. With no layoffs planned, director Adina Danzig Epelman is looking for “creative” ways to save money.

The most visible of these changes will happen on Friday nights. Previously, Hillel at Stanford catered its Shabbat meals. Beginning this month, Hillel is asking students to volunteer to cook dinner for all in attendance.

“That alone will save us $10,000 for the remainder of the school year,” Danzig Epelman said. “Students have responded really positively and are very excited to help address the challenges.”

At Hillel’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., six employees, out of 100 total, were laid off effective Jan. 16, according to Hillel spokesperson Jeff Rubin, who declined to say how much money the cuts saved.

Rubin said Hillel lost $20,000 in investments with New York money manager Madoff, who is charged with orchestrating a massive Ponzi scheme, and another $600,000 for the upcoming fiscal year due to the Madoff-induced collapse of the nonprofit Chais Family Foundation, “which funded a good portion of our programs in Israel and the former Soviet Union,” Rubin said. Prior to its demise, the Beverly Hills–based Chais foundation donated to Jewish causes worldwide.

With an estimated annual international operating budget of $90 million for fiscal year 2008 (which ended in July), Hillel supports programs at more than 500 campuses in the United States and Canada. Hillel foundations and affiliates also operate in several other countries.

At the organization’s international conference in December, “the economy dominated the conference,” Shalev said. “Hillel arranged for [campus directors] to meet with their top financial consultants and to get feedback on our budgets.

“We’ve had so much growth and are feeling such momentum,” Shalev added, “and this is such bad timing.”

Nonetheless, Zinman, director at Santa Cruz Hillel, is optimistic about the future of Jewish life on campus.

“We’re here to create meaningful Jewish experience — and money is not the only resource that goes into that,” Zinman said.

Richard Greenberg of the Washington Jewish Week contributed to this report.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.