For the first time last year, the Hillel at Temple University filled a Birthright winter trip bus of its own.
That speaks to the growth that Temple Hillel has recently undergone, which allowed it to become its own nonprofit earlier this summer.
“There are a lot more Jews coming to Temple than in a long time,” said Rabbi Daniel Levitt, the organization’s executive director. “We have an opportunity to engage those Jews.”
On July 1, Temple Hillel became its own 501(c)(3). That move kicked off the entire restructuring of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, a shakeup in the works for several years. The change in status doesn’t affect much on the ground at Temple Hillel, Levitt noted. The difference is really in the governing structure, which makes Temple Hillel an autonomous organization.
“We’re hoping to take control of our own destiny and to have more success with our own independence,” Levitt said.
Temple Hillel has had its share of struggles, but with recent successes in fundraising and changes in campus culture, prospects are finally starting to look up for the North Philadelphia Hillel. The fact that it is now its own nonprofit is emblematic of that.
“It is something that really speaks to a trajectory that Hillel at Temple is on,” said Barbara Hirsh, director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
In past years, Temple Hillel has struggled financially.
It constructed a new building 10 years ago, in 2008 when the Great Recession hit, making the project more difficult than anticipated, Hirsh said. As a result, Temple Hillel does not have a paid-off building. Temple Hillel, though, has made progress toward that debt, and “can see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of retiring the debt on that building, though it’s been holding them back for a while, up until the past year or so,” Hirsh said.
In addition, unlike some other area universities, Temple has a strong commuter school culture, which makes it challenging to build a strong Jewish community on campus or produce alumni who are financially supportive. Temple Hillel, though, has recently started to rely on alumni in a way it has not been able to before, Hirsh said.
“Temple has been blessed with some good fundraising successes, the ability to hire more staff with a board that has really rolled up its sleeves to support the staff and the growth of the organization,” Hirsh said.
The retiring debt, combined with increasingly robust fundraising efforts, have led to other signs of growth. Temple Hillel, for example, hired an engagement associate last year.
“That’s made a huge difference because so much of Hillel work is interpersonal,” Hirsh said. “It’s labor-intensive, and so their new engagement associate was just out there, meeting with students, meeting students who had never walked into the building necessarily or ever participated in a Jewish campus-based event or initiative, just to build relationships, just to inspire them to think about whether or how they might be involved in Jewish community.”
Temple Hillel also hired a new Birthright Israel associate this year. As a result, it now has what Levitt believes is its largest staff in history.
In addition, Temple Hillel has added programming. This includes the Jewish Learning Fellowship, a 10-week learning program that exists at Hillels across the country through Hillel International. Last spring, Temple Hillel also launched an Israel learning program, where students foster Jewish identity by learning about Israeli culture.
In the past, Temple Hillel’s financial pressures have led to staff cuts, making this expansion all the more significant.
Temple Hillel, Hirsh said, is now poised to engage students in a much broader and deeper way than before.
“This builds on itself; this kind of momentum snowballs,” Hirsh said. “Part of that is because so much of campus work is based on student networks, inspiring students to become leaders and reach out to their own peers or engaging actual engagement interns, who undertake their own study, both of Jewish stuff … but also, how to reach out, how to do community organizing basically on campus.”