Looking Beneath the Surface in Chicago

Today’s The Jewish Week carries an excellent editorial on the bitter, and now public, disagreement between the University of Chicago Hillel’s recently fired director and advisory board and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, Hillel’s owner. As eJP understands the dispute, the paper’s analysis is correct.

Several issues have come together to make this much more than just a local Chicago issue. First is the ownership model where all Hillel’s in Illinois are owned by the Federation, a situation we believe to be unique in the U.S. Whether or not this is the best possible model for UC Hillel is an important question that no one seems to be addressing.

Also, as far as we have been able to ascertain, the firing of Hillel’s advisory board by the Federation represents the first time not only in Chicago, but in the U.S., that any federation has fired an agency advisory board. Lost in the dialogue seems to be that when an advisory board has a vision that may be different than the ‘owning’ organization, no good path is available to reconcile.

Of course, in this situation it hasn’t helped that both sides have “dug in” positions they adhere to. The Hillel board, so we’re told, threatened to break away and form a competing organization if they did not get their way. Federation claims “Libenson and the Hillel board are part of the federation and have no right to break away.” Being adamant with one’s position is not a good way to resolve any conflict.

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is a strong, proud federation that does meaningful work not only locally but globally. They also have a reputation for being the controlling partner of all Jewish life in the region. Multiple conversations in recent weeks has led eJP to believe that many feel the federation is losing this control, is concerned by it, and frankly is not sure how best to respond. Perhaps this is why after several days of the “firings” being hush hush around their end, the federation came out with a two page memo of talking points distributed to their staff – and interestingly not simultaneously to their board – on how to respond, and defend, the Federation’s role.

In the meantime, we encourage both the Federation, and those formerly connected to UC Hillel, to begin to think about what is best for the students – something clearly absent from the various conversations we’ve had.

And, by the way, maybe find a good marriage counselor.

About: Heard Around Jerusalem occasionally appears on the scene with a look below the surface at the goings on in the Jewish organizational world.