A $35,000 UJA-Federation grant will help start a Hillel program this semester for an estimated 5,000 New York-area students attending Albany colleges.
In announcing the grant, officials said UJA-Federation was recognizing the importance of college years for Jewish identity development — even if it means reaching beyond its geographic boundaries.
“UJA-Federation is committed to doing whatever it can to strengthen Jewish life on the college campus, and we recognize this challenge transcends geography,” said Alisa Rubin Kurshan, executive director of UJA-Federation’s Jewish Continuity Commission. “We have to attract more quality people to the field of Jewish education, and we need to strengthen programming on campuses and beyond through more resources, more focus and more attention.”
The grant was awarded to The Hillels of New York, a UJA-Federation beneficiary agency that until recently served only the city, Long Island and Westchester.
“We have just amended our by-laws to recognize that there are thousands of Jewish students throughout New York State who are not connected with one of Hillel’s regional centers,” said The Hillels chief executive officer, Robert Lichtman. “So we are going to bring them under our umbrella and we plan to eventually work throughout New York State.”
To do that, he said, would mean The Hillels of New York would have to raise $500,000 annually — on top of its current $1.7 million budget — to serve 10,000 metropolitan-area college students now attending Albany colleges and, hopefully in the future, Binghamton University. Each of those communities, Lichtman said, has a Jewish student enrollment of about 5,000 — 90 percent of whom are from the New York area.
The $35,000 from UJA-Federation may be the first step in that direction, although future additional funding from the philanthropy is not yet secure.
“We want very much to see the Hillel programs develop further, but we are not in a position to make a commitment of increased funding,” said the organization’s executive vice president, Stephen Solender.
He noted that UJA-Federation joined other federations throughout the country in pledging to support the Hillel movement when B’nai B’rith was no longer able to do it alone. Lichtman said $1 million of The Hillels of New York’s budget comes from UJA-Federation.
Ron Soloway, managing director of government relations at UJA-Federation, said that when his organization made the pledge to help Hillel, upstate federations pointed out the “enormous number of young people from our catchment area attending schools upstate, such as the state schools and Cornell and Skidmore.”
“Upstate federations said they were overwhelmed because they didn’t have the funding base to support Hillel services and they asked us to help,” he said. “We looked at the numbers and we recognized that this was a situation where we might be helpful. This is a time when Jewish identity and renewal is so critical, and the college years are crucial in maintaining that identity. We needed to be creative and innovative and to follow the students wherever they are.”
The grant enables the United Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, which until now has run a department of Jewish student service, to create a separate agency, Hillels of Northeastern New York. Gary Metzger, who had worked in the department of Jewish student service, will be its director.
Lichtman said some legal steps must be taken to create the agency but that it should begin operating shortly to serve the campuses in the capital district.
Metzger identified them as the State University at Albany, whose student body of 15,000 is about one-third Jewish; Skidmore College, with about 450 Jewish students out of 2,200; Russell Sage College, 45 Jews out of 1,000; Union College, 400 Jews out of 2,000; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 500 Jews out of 6,500.
He noted that the United Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York is continuing to provide $70,000 to the program. Lichtman said that because not all Jewish students gravitate to the Hillel programs — no matter how good they are — part of the federations’ money is earmarked to help pay the salary of a recent college graduate who would serve for a year as a Jewish Service Campus Corps fellow.
“That person’s job is not to bring students to Hillel but to ‘do Jewish’ with them,” said Lichtman. “Our mission statement is to maximize the number of Jews who are doing Jewish with other Jews.”
Metzger said a number of candidates for the position were interviewed but “unfortunately we have not yet found a suitable person. Most of the candidates were either taken [by other Hillels] or preferred to go in other directions. We want someone who is just out of college, who has some Jewish background, who has some experience with student government, works well with students and is independently motivated.”
Soloway said UJA-Federation would be monitoring the events in Albany closely for the next two years and then consider “other areas where we might be helpful.”