San Francisco Hillel officials singing the financial blues

San Francisco Hillel, which strives to serve more than 3,000 Jewish students every year at 12 local colleges, is struggling financially, according to officials responsible for the house’s programming.

After losing major funding from both the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation (which has been reducing grants to many Bay Area organizations since the recession hit) and the soon-to-be-defunct Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, San Francisco Hillel was forced to lay off programming staff and reduce Shabbat dinners to every other week, officials said.

S.F. Hillel also began charging for Shabbat dinners — only $3 per student, but charging nonetheless.

The San Francisco Hillel house at 33 Banbury Dr. photo/yochai shavit

The Hillel house, a 1,370-square-foot home built in 1949, with three bedrooms converted into office space, is located in a residential neighborhood just across 19th Avenue from San Francisco State University. It’s a location that serves SFSU students well, but students on other campuses have begun to feel the pinch of the reduced funding, said Adam Eisendrath, an S.F. Hillel board member.

“We’re in a unique situation in the Bay Area, because we have 12 campuses to serve,” Eisendrath said. “And what’s happened is, since we’re so close to San Francisco State, we wind up serving mainly them, which means USF and Hastings and the arts schools and culinary schools really aren’t getting the attention they used to.”

Eisendrath was referring to the University of San Francisco and U.C. Hastings School of Law. S.F. Hillel also serves Jewish students at UCSF, local community colleges including the College of San Mateo and Skyline College in San Bruno, and specialty colleges such as the Academy of Arts University and the California Culinary Academy.

Eisendrath said the fact that some of those schools have smaller Jewish populations means they’re more in need of Hillel’s services, not less.

“When I was at USF, there wasn’t really a large Jewish presence on campus,” he said. “I would have appreciated more of an opportunity to build community, to have a place to go.”

At SFSU, Hillel’s limited ability to provide events has grown more pronounced as the university itself expands, said Alon Shalev, S.F. Hillel’s executive director. He said S.F. Hillel lost roughly 30 percent of its overall budget in 2011.

“We’re going to see continued growth [at the university] over the next 10 years, and with our budget, with a small, old residential house, we have to be really careful about how we spend our money,” he said.

Stressing that they realize many Jewish organizations have lost funding over the past few years, Hillel staff and student leaders emphasize that they’re not simply complaining — but they do want to get the word out that they’re kicking their fundraising efforts into high gear, and need the community’s support. A fundraising poker tournament is planned for April 21 at the JCC of San Francisco.

Jordan Sills, president of S.F. Hillel’s board of directors, alluded to the fact that San Francisco colleges and universities don’t tend to have donor-oriented alumni.

“It’s nothing against Stanford or Berkeley; those are both wonderful Hillel communities,” Sills said. “But there’s so much prestige involved, and they have so many alumni who give money back. There’s a built-in network … something the San Francisco universities just don’t have.”

In addition to making individual gifts, people can support S.F. Hillel in many ways, Sills stressed. For example, he said, donors can sponsor a Shabbat dinner for $500.

“But the No. 1 thing they can do is help spread the word,” Sills added. “Whether it’s the great things we do for students on campus, Torah study opportunities, pro-Israel messaging, or social events … we’re just trying to raise the profile of Hillel in this community. Some people just don’t realize how much we have going on.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.