The truth behind the lagging latkes

To the Editor:

It is no wonder that faculty members did not want to participate in the Latke-Hamantash Debate as long as it continued to be sponsored by Hillel. The shabby way in which the Chicago Jewish Federation (Hillel’s corporate owner, as they made very clear last spring) summarily fired Hillel’s board — made up of many University of Chicago faculty members and Hyde Park community leaders —has led many in our community to want nothing further to do with Hillel until its local governance is restored.

In the meantime, why should the faculty and this community leave one of its beloved traditions in the hands of outsiders who have shown nothing but disdain for them? The Latke-Hamantash Debate was not canceled; rather, it’s been postponed in order to give time for students and faculty to reorganize it under local sponsorship. This will only strengthen the event.

I’ve been involved with the UChicago Hillel since 1980, including nine years (1999-2008) as a non-faculty member of its governing board and several as treasurer. Although I “timed out” as a board member some four years ago, I remain close to many who were on that board when it was unceremoniously fired by the Federation this spring.

The Hillel board had a long history of concern for the well-being of Jewish life on the University of Chicago campus; for connecting students to Jewish role models, mentors and activities in Hyde Park and beyond; and of effective organizational governance and leadership. The board does not have the reputation of a “rubber stamp” for any executive of the organization, let alone Dan Libenson. When the Federation fired both Libenson and the entire board, it came as a shock to all, especially with its bizarre claims of poor financial management, as those of us who have served on the Hillel board know how hard we have been fighting for so many years to address the Federation’s abysmal financial reporting and poor financial management in the form of cost-allocation, accounting and building management policies that made no sense for Hillel.

The board, which included University of Chicago professors and lay leaders with expertise in all the financial matters at hand, made a reasonable proposal to Federation that it “spin off” Hillel in order to restore its previous status as an independent self-governing organization that could manage its finances appropriately with no future Federation risk of unanticipated financial loss.

So, it is no shock if faculty involved with Hillel at the time felt broadly and deeply insulted when the board was precipitously dismissed by Federation, along with Hillel’s executive director. In my (informed!) view, it is much more likely to be reasonable response to insult, not any “blackmail by Libenson and his cronies” (as speculatively alleged by Dennis Miller in his Letter to the Editor on Dec. 5) that led to the widespread unwillingness among the faculty to participate in this year’s Latke-Hamantash debate. Since most faculty who have participated in the debate in recent decades have no prior history of Hillel involvement, and in fact many have not even been Jewish, it seems clear to me that “blackmail” on this topic, extending comprehensively throughout the faculty, would not be possible and thus cannot explain why Hillel was not able to find the three willing participants necessary to let the show go on.

But, all this focuses on one late detail — the absence of this year’s Latke-Hamantash debate — and leaves aside the more important issue for Hyde Park and the campus Jewish community. The real story is that our Hillel, formerly a local Hyde Park organization, this spring became, essentially, the victim of a hostile takeover by the Chicago Jewish Federation, which is now in control of Hillel’s assets and building (which were given to them a decade ago with the expectation — now breached — that the Federation would allow them to be locally governed through the local board) but lacks any connection to our community. In response, Dan Libenson along with the former (fired) members of the Hillel board, formed jU Chicago, a new, local, student-oriented Jewish organization. It should come as no surprise to anyone informed of the facts and in tune with Hyde Park’s general positive orientation toward locally determined priorities and locally run community organizations that many (faculty and others) find the new organization to have a greater claim to local legitimacy.

Matthew Klionsky, MD, MBA (Booth ’82)