Have Pittsburgh donors failed Hillel JUC?
To hear Aaron Weil tell it, offering free dinners for Jewish college students around Pittsburgh on Friday night is a keystone holding together Jewish life in the city.
Weil, executive director of the Hillel Jewish University Center, breaks it down like this: Students come to Hillel for a meal and for community. From there they learn about Jewish events and student groups on campus. They become part of the local community, as babysitters, camp counselors, tutors, Sunday school teachers and volunteers.
Then, hopefully, they marry and move here, boosting enrollment at day schools and membership at synagogues, and promoting Jewish continuity and charitable giving.
“Hillel is there to create the next generation of leaders,” Weil said.
The dinners are very popular. Or, rather, free dinners are popular. Were popular.
Due to financial pressures over the past year and a half, Hillel JUC began charging for Friday night dinners this fall after five years of offering them for free. The impact was immediate. Before Hillel JUC began charging $6, it regularly drew 150 to 225 students on Friday night. Since implementing the charge, attendance fell to around 40 students.
(To prove the popularity of the event, Weil notes that when Hillel JUC announced this past spring it would end free Friday night dinners, a group of students raised $25,000 in three weeks to insure the tradition would last through the end of the school year.)
The Shabbat dinners are a casualty of broader economic problems in the world that have hit all nonprofits. At Hillel JUC, those troubles halted a decade of consistent growth.
Since July, Hillel JUC made the decision not to fill two open staff positions. Two weeks ago, Hillel JUC laid off its assistant director, saying it could no longer afford the position. After a $1.1 million budget in 2008, the largest ever for the organization, Hillel JUC recently cut 11 percent, planning to spend less than $1 million for the coming year.
The short-term result is a narrower reach on area campuses, Weil said.
While outreach at the University of Pittsburgh will remain fully staffed, Weil now plans to handle Carnegie Mellon University on his own, and Hillel JUC will no longer be setting up events at other colleges around the area, like Carlow, Chatham, Robert Morris, and Point Park universities, the Community College of Allegheny County and Duquesne University, which has a recognized Hillel chapter.
All told, Weil said Hillel JUC will reach around 900 fewer students this year, including, Weil likes to point out, many students who are native Pittsburghers.
“Without the staff, we don’t have anyone to go out and meet those students,” he said.
But looking longer term, Weil believes the impact is much more dire, both for Jewish students on campus and, by extension, for the broader Jewish community in Pittsburgh.
Weil sees Hillel JUC as a feeder group into the larger community, attracting Jewish youth to Pittsburgh secondary schools and gradually easing them into community life.
Between 2003 and 2008, Jewish enrollment at Pitt increased 30 percent, making Jews the largest minority group on campus at around 13 percent of the undergraduate population.
Weil said students teach at almost every non-Orthodox Sunday school in the city. They work at Jewish summer camps. They man the phones at United Jewish Federation fundraisers, and volunteer at the food pantry. They babysit and tutor small children.
Hillel JUC gets around 98 percent of its budget from local donations, Weil said. Last year, the United Jewish Federation gave Hillel around $215,000. Of that, about 80 percent — or $170,000 — went to Hillel, while $25,000 went to J’Burgh and $20,000 went to a joint Hillel-Jewish National Fund effort to increase Israel advocacy on campus.
As a result, Hillel JUC is in an unusual situation: success is more expensive than failure.
Hillel JUC doesn’t charge for most of its programming, and so as more students come to events, expenses go up without a corresponding increase in revenue. In 2003, Hillel JUC spent around $17,000 on Friday night dinner. By 2008, that jumped to $75,000 a year.
But when Hillel JUC charges for events, students stop coming.
The organization managed to cut some costs with the Shabbat in a Box program, where students get a small stipend to host creative Shabbat dinners at home with friends. The program has an added benefit of teaching students to teach their friends about traditions.
But the basic dilemma remains: Hillel JUC depends heavily on donations.
In good times, Hillel JUC managed to get the donations it needed, but in the current economic climate, raising enough funds has proved more difficult. Recently, when Hillel JUC approached donors, it heard the same message over and over again.
“Dinner for college students wasn’t their priority. It just wasn’t,” said Susan Berman, president of the Hillel JUC board. “It didn’t meet the bar of: food, shelter, clothing.”
Weil and Berman are trying to convince local donors that funding these dinners is essential for maintaining the well-being of the community. Because it takes about two months for students to establish a social routine once they get to campus and because campus population inevitably turns over every four years, skipping even a year of programming is like pulling out a domino: the dominoes that follow don’t fall right.
“They come in as freshmen and leave as seniors and we’ve never had a connection with them,” Berman said. “It’s a critical lost opportunity.”
Even convincing people to give, though, doesn’t solve the basic dilemma facing Hillel JUC: Every year it needs to start fresh to afford programming for students.
Weil and Berman said an endowment would solve that problem. Currently, Hillel-JUC is the least endowed of any Hillel chapter in its peer group, as measured by Hillel International.
Without a short- and long-term solution, though, Weil and Berman worry that Pittsburgh will start losing its reputation as a good city for young Jews, and prospective students will head to schools in Maryland, Delaware or New York, and not western Pennsylvania.