Hillel of Greater Philadelphia Restructures

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Students participate in the Hillel in Philadelphia Leadership Retreat. | Selah Maya Zighelboim

The vote took place in January, and everyone agreed: After decades of it acting as a parent organization to and supporting the various Hillel chapters throughout the Philadelphia area, the time had come to restructure Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.

“At the end of it, it was a unanimous vote in favor of, really, a radical restructuring,” said Rabbi Mike Uram, Penn Hillel executive director and campus rabbi. “[It’s] a real testament to these leaders and a real testament to the wisdom of how [the Jewish] Federation [of Greater Philadelphia] stewarded the process along.”

As of July 1, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia no longer exists as before. It is in the process of dissolving into three standalone organizations: Hillel at Temple University, Penn Hillel, and Jewish Graduate Student Network and Hillel in Philadelphia.

As Hillel of Greater Philadelphia staff had primarily been associated with specific universities, this restructuring has not resulted in job losses, said Barbara Hirsh, director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

The change reflects the growth of these Hillel chapters, Uram said, as they wouldn’t have been able to support themselves just a few years ago.

“There was a time when Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, as a centralized agency, was instrumental in ushering in the success of places like Penn Hillel and Drexel and Temple,” Uram said. “Much to the credit of Rabbi Howard Alpert, who was the longtime CEO of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, he made room for these organizations to become more self-governing as years went on. Some of these campuses started to raise their own money and began to do more independent programming, more independent staff training.”

The growth had come to a point where perhaps a new structure would better serve further expansion. Uram noted that Penn Hillel had become one of the premiere Hillels in the country, with its Steinhardt Hall filled with students every day. Meanwhile, Drexel Hillel grew from a program to an independent Hillel that was capable of working with the university to construct a new building. With the support of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, Hillel at Temple University hired an executive director, constructed a new building and began to thrive to the point where it was ready to become autonomous.

The restructuring of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia began several years ago. With the approaching retirement of Alpert, who had served as the CEO for decades, the organization’s board began to wonder if it should even hire a replacement for him. Members saw an opportunity to perhaps create a new organizationalstructure.

“The second half of the 20th century was about centralized leadership, and the beginning of the 21st century is about distributing leadership,” Uram said. “It’s an amazing testament to the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia that they understood these trends and wanted to proactively reshape the organization to be most focused on its core values, which is serving students, and that the form didn’t matter. All that mattered was serving more students in a more impactful way.”

Hillel of Greater Philadelphia leaders began to mull restructuring plans. It was board member Jonathan Korman who “broke this thing wide open,” Uram said, and got the buy-in needed to move forward.

There once was a time when regional models for Hillel could be seen around the country. Over the years, as Hillel International has grown into more of a powerhouse, the advantages of having regional Hillel organizations declined. Hillel International essentially eclipsed them, Hirsh said. The regional models have since given way to structures that allow campus Hillels to have more direct relationships with Hillel International. Today, only a handful of regional models remain.

“Rather than having an intermediary between this international movement and a local Hillel foundation like at Temple University, Hillel now interacts more directly with this international hub of activity and resources,” Hirsh said.

Temple Hillel launching as its own nonprofit kicked off the restructuring for Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. The Hillel at Drexel left the organization about a year ago as well.

The restructuring also means positive changes for the Jewish Graduate Student Network and Hillel in Philadelphia — which oversees and supports smaller Hillel chapters, such as those at West Chester University, Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College — said Tslil Shtulsaft, those organizations’ executive director. More time, energy and resources will be put toward these chapters.

For the Jewish Graduate Student Network, it means more programming like graduate student-led Shabbat dinners throughout the city.

Hillel in Philadelphia can expect more programming, too. As an example, Shtulsaft pointed to the Hillel in Philadelphia Leadership Retreat that took place on Sept. 2 at Bryn Mawr College Hillel, where student leadership from small universities met to discuss challenges and learn from each other’s experiences. In addition, West Chester University Hillel has been able to hire a full-time staff person, and fundraising efforts at all of those universities has become more robust, quadrupling in the last academic year.

Hillel in Philadelphia also hopes to fill its own Birthright bus, so Jewish students from smaller universities can go to Israel together, rather than on a nationally sourced trip or with some other university.

“There was just no resources, no staff time, no lay-leader support thinking about any of those smaller campuses [before],” Shtulsaft said. “Now, because of this new restructuring, we’re putting a lot more emphasis on those smaller campuses.”

These changes will allow each Hillel organization to govern itself.

“If the highest level of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is where you teach someone the skills they need so that they don’t have to be dependent on you anymore,” Uram said, “then that’s really what the legacy of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia is, that it supported, empowered and ultimately taught each of these entities the skills necessary to be able to operate and to be self-sustaining.”

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