The recent recession forced Hillel JUC to slash its budget, laying off employees and scaling back services, Executive Director Aaron Weil told The Chronicle in a Dec. 17 story.
Most notably, it has stopped providing free Sabbath dinners, which attracted an average of 150 students a week to the Jewish center on Forbes Avenue, and played a major role in engaging Jewish college students in the Pittsburgh community.
According to Weil, an adequate endowment could sustain Hillel activities during tough times. Compared to other Hillels, though, Pittsburgh’s fund simply isn’t adequate.
Hillel International groups its chapters into so-called “cohorts,” groups the organization uses to compare and analyze data from Hillels serving similar Hillels with similar organizations, resources, staff models and funding situations.
Hillel JUC’s cohort includes the University of California at San Diego, UCLA, University of California at Berkeley, University of Washington and University of Michigan.
According to Weil, Hillel JUC’s endowment is lower than any of the Hillels at these schools.
Hillel International spokesman Jeff Rubin wouldn’t disclose endowment figures for these schools, but he did say that the average prerecession endowment for Hillels was $450,000.
That actually was the size of the Pittsburgh endowment, Weil said, but it shrunk due to a combination of factors.
“Prior to the recession, our number was indeed $450,000,” Weil told The Chronicle. “However, we paid off our mortgage ($40,000) and then lost the remainder in the down market. While others lost, too, our current numbers would put us in the lower half when compared to our peers.”
The low endowment compounds other problems facing Hillel JUC, Rubin said. The chapter has also watched staff size shrink from 15, which already was smaller than comparable Hillels.
(Actually, Weil said he had nine full-time employees and two part-timers at the height. He’s currently down to five full time and two part time.)
Rubin also noted that Hillel JUC must service at least six universities — Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Chatham, Duquesne, Point Park and Robert Morris, which can complicate program and service planning. Many Hillels service just one university.
Finally, support structures for other Hillels are better developed than they are here.
“Those other university Hillels have very old and established alumni networks,” Rubin said. “The University of Michigan was one of the first Hillels ever established, so they have an endowment going back to the 1920s.”
Hillel JUC’s alumni network isn’t so far along.
“We started working on alumni relations a couple of years ago and hired a full-time alumni coordinator to develop alumni relations nationally and thus ease the pressure on local fundraising,” Weil said. “We unfortunately, had to cut funding for the position this summer due to the economy. We are planning on reinstating it for the 2010-11 fiscal year.
“It will be a major player once we can create the infrastructure,” he added.
Weil also said a plan is being developed for an endowment campaign, but nothing is ready to be announced.
When that campaign gets started, Hillel International can offer only limited help.
Tim Cohen, senior vice president of Hillel International and a Pittsburgh native, said his organization can act as a “coach and consultant” to Pittsburgh.
“We work very closely with the campuses, advising them, training on identifying donors,” Cohen said.
But it can’t provide financial support for Hillel endowments.
“We don’t operate as a member organization,” Cohen said. “No money goes out, no money comes in.”
Rubin described the size of the Hillel JUC endowment as “middle of the pack” for similar campus Hillels.
But he acknowledged the need to quickly beef it up. He called the growth of the Pittsburgh Hillel, its new center, the services it offers, “incredible.”
But Rubin, whose son graduated from Pitt, warned that many of the gains Hillel JUC made over the past decade could be lost without an infusion of funds.
“What we’re seeing [now] is a disturbing trend,” he said. “[Following] the progress that they’ve made in the past five years, Hillel is taking a step backward, which no one wants.
“If we’re not taking care of those students, there’s not going to be an endowment in the future, so it’s cyclical,” he added. “If we don’t invest now, we’re going to see it slip away later.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)