October 21, 2018

Hillel 818 starts anew following Federation-led transformation

On Sept. 3, 2014, Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, met with the board of Hillel 818 at the home of a Hillel board member and gave an ultimatum:

Fire yourselves and allow Federation and Hillel International to help select new board members and a new director or Federation won’t fund Hillel 818 for the upcoming school year.

As Hillel 818’s largest single donor, Federation annually supplied about $215,000 of Hillel 818’s nearly $300,000 budget, according to Tal Gozani, senior vice president for young adult engagement at Federation. To lose that would be financially crippling for a Hillel that serves Jewish students at CSUN, Pierce College and Valley College — a four-year university and two two-year community colleges, with an estimated combined population of 8,000 Jewish students.

One month earlier, on July 31, Hillel 818’s director Judy Alban had resigned only a few months after being promoted by her board from the post of interim director. She left when she learned the reason Federation wasn’t approving any of her grant requests was because Federation officials disapproved of her promotion and had decided they wouldn’t give Hillel 818 any more money until she departed.

Faced with the prospect of Hillel 818 losing its biggest donor just before the start of a new school year, Alban resigned, and, despite the hesitation of some board members to go along with Federation’s plan, the board agreed to dissolve in September, with Federation allowing only a few members to join the new board. 

Among those who remained on the board after the turnover is Jody Myers, a Jewish studies professor at CSUN and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program. She confirmed in a phone interview what Alban told the Journal via email, that Hillel 818’s transformation — which began with Alban’s resignation and reached another milestone last week with the hiring of a new director — was orchestrated by Federation and assisted by Hillel International. 

Myers said she saw no good reason for Federation to force out Alban, who she said collaborated well with key groups at CSUN, including the university’s administration, the Associated Students group (which controls much of CSUN’s funding for student groups), and Chabad. “She was honest, hardworking, and liked and respected by students,” Myers said. “She raised funds; she sought advice from experts. There was no misbehavior. There were no mismanaged funds. There was no crisis.”

But Sanderson said in an interview on Jan. 22 that Hillel 818 was mismanaged, couldn’t support itself financially and was not serving nearly enough of the approximately 8,000 Jews from the combined colleges in the Valley.

“For many, many, many years, those students did not get adequate support,” Sanderson said. “There’s not one person who can tell you that that was an effectively run Hillel.”

Hillel 818’s annual budget has been about $300,000, according to Rabbi David Komerofsky, who served as Hillel 818’s interim director during the six-month transition. He believes it should be three times as much.

The bottom line from Sanderson and Federation was, according to Myers, that “the board was told ‘you need to fire yourselves.’ And so we did. We didn’t have a choice.”

Myers said Sanderson warned at the Sept. 3 meeting that Federation would establish its own alternative leadership if Hillel 818’s board didn’t disband.

“[We were told] by Jay Sanderson that Hillel 818 will be shown more generosity by Federation in the future if you do this,” Myers said. But even after the summer turnover, Hillel didn’t receive any money from Federation until December, when it got $60,000, and then another $60,000 in January, in addition to the $30,000 that Federation paid Hillel International for Komerofsky’s services and travel expenses. Hillel 818 had to run only on whatever was already available in the meantime. “We had money left over, because Judy Alban actually raised some money and ran a very tight ship,” Myers said.

Komerofsky, who lives in San Antonio and is Hillel International’s associate vice president for advancement, has traveled to Los Angeles about once every two weeks since September. On Jan. 22 Hillel 818 announced David Katz as the new executive director. Katz is finishing his tenure as the assistant director of the University of Pittsburgh Hillel. Komerofsky will continue in a part-time role until Katz arrives in April.

“This past semester has been difficult without a permanent on-site executive director; there wasn’t the kind of stability for success,” Komerofsky said. “There were events and activities, but they were not reaching enough people.”

According to students who work at Hillel 818, since the beginning of the spring semester at CSUN, attendance already has markedly increased, with at least 30 students attending most events, significantly more than the average attendance at fall semester events, perhaps a promising sign of things to come.

Emma Collosi, a CSUN senior and a student representative on Hillel 818’s board, said she was surprised when she was informed last summer of Alban’s departure, but believes Federation’s involvement will ultimately help the organization. “I feel like we’re bouncing back from the loss of Judy, and we’re coming back stronger.”

But for the first half of the school year, the story was different. Hillel 818 was staffed only by an Israel fellow, a few interns and 23-year-old program director Kevin Gobuty, who had come to Hillel 818 in January 2014 and was thrust into the position of de facto day-to-day director after only a few months on the job. Gobuty declined to comment for this story.

He resigned on Jan. 21, the day before Katz was introduced as the organization’s new executive director. Katz previously served as assistant director at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillel, where he also worked with Jewish students at two other universities in Pittsburgh, a similar dynamic to what he’ll face in trying to engage Jewish students from the affiliated commuter schools across the San Fernando Valley.

Rob Goldberg, Hillel International’s vice president, said that Hillel International had worked “hand in glove” with the L.A. Federation since early 2013 in planning the transformation of Hillel 818. “It’s been an extraordinary model of cooperation between Federation and Hillel in terms of how we strengthen Jewish life on campus,” Goldberg said in a phone interview.

Although Hillel International has helped transform other campus Hillels, including those at Cornell, Pennsylvania State and Tulane universities, Goldberg said that in-depth cooperation with a local Jewish Federation is less common.

“This one at 818 went faster than almost any that I’ve seen or been a part of,” Goldberg said. “I think it’s because of the model. Jay [Sanderson] and [Hillel International CEO] Eric [Fingerhut] were in sync.”

In the last semester, though, without a director and with acting staff, Hillel 818’s programming at CSUN was far below normal levels. 

“The whole leadership change, in general, put a lot of stress on the staff, and it wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been,” said Zohar Achiasaf, a sophomore and an intern at Hillel 818. She said that, over the last several months, Federation has worked on-site at CSUN through Megan Kanofsky, Federation's campus activities coordinator. Kanofsky attended many events and helped by collaborating with students and staff.

Myers characterized the previous semester as a “crisis” created by the leadership gap that Federation imposed on Hillel 818.

“All sorts of things have not been happening, even though we get Federation help and Hillel International help,” Myers said, listing a number of items that had fallen through in the fall semester. There was supposed to be a Birthright trip in January, but that didn’t happen; Shabbat dinners were less frequent than normal; the website and server were down for weeks at a time; and the Facebook page was rarely updated.

Goldberg said that Hillels in transition often experience a temporary slowdown in terms of programming, but that he prefers to take the “long view.”

“The long view is let’s strengthen the infrastructure, let’s get the right personnel, let’s make sure there’s financial stability, let’s put together a group of volunteer leaders to serve as a board who will help advance the organization,” he said. “The program will follow. It all really rests on having a great director.”

Sanderson said he took what he called an uncharacteristic “personal interest” in overseeing the changes at Hillel 818, discussing with Hillel International’s Fingerhut throughout the process how to move forward. He said, however, that “the board of directors at Hillel 818 chose to reconstitute itself and recognized that they did not have appropriate professional leadership.” 

“I feel like the leadership needed to come from the top,” Sanderson said of his involvement.

Sanderson said Hillel 818’s previous leadership “did not understand the needs” of its students. He did not explicitly name Alban, but rather cited “personnel doing the job” as not succeeding in reaching Jewish students at three commuter schools. Alban said she did not recall ever speaking with or meeting Sanderson.

“We have partnerships with organizations, and we’re responsible for donor money, and we’re responsible for the community,” Sanderson said. “So we don’t invest in places where we question how the organization is being run.”

“Hillel 818 has been underfunded,” Komerofsky said. “It’s kind of a cycle that you can’t reach enough students because there’s not enough money to hire the staff to be able to reach them, and then, conversely, there’s not that compelling story to talk about how you’re able to reach so many students — that raises more dollars.”

“We’re trying to get Hillel 818 off of that treadmill.”

Myers said some of Hillel 818’s troubles in raising enough money to support a larger program stem from the fact that CSUN is a commuter school, and the majority of its students do not come from wealthy families.

“People give to the Hillels where their kids are students,” she said. “Well, CSUN has a student population whose parents typically do not have those excess funds.” And with that handicap, she said, Federation’s policy of “not sufficiently” supporting “core” operating expenses, like salaries and overhead, only makes things harder.

The ideal, Myers said, would be for Hillel 818 to be able to raise more money from parents of current students and from alumni, but she said that, at least this year, that’s not a feasible way to raise the money it needs.

Sanderson said Hillel 818 should rely more on alumni and less on Federation, and he hopes that, in 20 years, the group will have developed the types of relationships it needs with alumni.

Myers, though, countered that building an alumni donor base is made difficult when there isn’t money to pay for employees whose primary job is to fundraise.

“Who’s going to pay for the fundraiser or for the person in the office to reach alumni? Who’s going to do that? That’s an operational expense,” Myers said. 

Until about four years ago, local Hillels were funded by the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct group that gave Hillels core, lump-sum donations — as opposed to grants for specific programs, in large part through Federation support. 

Between 2008 and 2010, every dollar of Federation’s $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC. That dissolution overlapped with a major transition in how Federation funds Jewish groups, a transition process completed by the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year that now requires groups to apply for grants for specific programs in line with Federation’s goals. 

Although the new grant policy creates a method for innovative and new programs to find capital, Myers said that it nevertheless makes it difficult to fund good programs that don’t need change, as well as to raise money for more staff that could, for example, focus on fundraising.

Myers emphasized that she looks forward to working with Katz, the new executive director, and to “seeing more generosity” from Federation, which she said Sanderson promised in September. 

Still, what she’s seen since summer 2014 concerns her: “Does the Federation know enough to engineer our specific campus programs? It’s the job of the new director and the Hillel 818 Board to do that, with the support of the community.”

And while she’s hopeful about Hillel 818’s potential for future growth, she regards this past fall semester as a sort of lost one, and one that didn’t serve the needs of Jewish students at Hillel 818’s three main campuses.

“I feel really badly for our students,” Myers said. “I think they deserve more.”

*****

For the record: 

A previous version of this story implied that David Komerofsky's trips to L.A. ended upon the hiring of Hillel 818's new executive director, David Katz. Komerofsky will in fact be continuing in a part-time role as interim director until Katz begins in April.

-Hillel 818's significant increase in program attendance is since the beginning of spring semester in mid-January, not since the beginning of fall semester.

-Kevin Gobuty started at Hillel 818 in Jan. 2014, not Jan. 2013.