When David Katz, the new executive director of Hillel 818 — the organization that serves Jewish students on three San Fernando Valley campuses — was being courted away last year from his position leading Hillel at the University of Pittsburgh, he wasn’t exactly given the most attractive hard sell. He recalls being told the following by Hillel International’s leadership:
“This Hillel has a quarter of the staff size that you’re used to, maybe a third of the budget that you’re used to and the potential to reach three times as many students as you’re used to.”
Nevertheless, Katz, 34, accepted the challenge, which also meant coming into a Hillel with a new board after an upheaval led by its primary funding source, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“This is a Hillel that has the potential to engage 6,000 students throughout all the different campuses that we serve,” Katz said during a recent interview at Hillel 818’s Northridge headquarters. He was referring to Cal State Northridge (CSUN), as well as two community colleges, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College, all of which are under Hillel 818’s umbrella. “We want to be able to prove that we can engage alumni, engage community members and eventually start building an endowment.”
Katz’s arrival in April followed a de facto takeover and reorganization in late 2014 by L.A. Federation, led by President and CEO Jay Sanderson, who told the Journal a year ago that Hillel 818’s leadership was mismanaged, unable to support itself financially, and not reaching enough Jewish students. “For many, many, many years, those students did not get adequate support,” Sanderson told the Journal in 2015. “There’s not one person who can tell you that that was an effectively run Hillel.”
Sanderson said in a recent interview that he thinks the organization is now on track. “Now there’s a strong board with a strong board chair [Howard Grobstein],” he said. “Eighty percent of the board is new people who are connected and committed to the campus.” Katz said there’s also a minimum board contribution for each member of $2,500 a year.
While Hillel 818 remains heavily dependent on Federation, Katz said it is on a path toward financial self-sustainability. Its annual budget has increased 54 percent, from $278,000 in 2014-15 to $430,000 in 2015-16, with just under half of this year’s funding from Federation — $214,000 — whereas Federation previously funded two-thirds of Hillel 818’s budget.
It’s also reaching more students. Hillel’s goal at the start of the 2015-16 school year, Katz said, was to interact with 900 individual Jewish students during this academic year; it finished the first semester reaching 464 individuals. He estimates that last year, Hillel 818 reached only 300 individual students in the entire academic year.
In addition, Katz said, last year Hillel 818 offered only one Shabbat dinner per month. It now opens its door for Friday night dinner every two weeks, including a Kabbalat Shabbat service beforehand, attracting about 30 to 40 students each time. Another priority of Hillel 818 under Katz’s leadership has been to increase its students’ representation on Birthright trips to Israel. He said in the year before he came, in April 2015, Hillel 818 sent only three students on Birthright, a number that increased to 15 over winter break. He hopes to see 30 more go on the summer trips.
Another of Katz’s goals is to increase the percentage of non-Federation funding sources and to expand Hillel 818’s footprint beyond its CSUN core, increasing engagement at Pierce, where Hillel 818 already has some presence, and making an impact at L.A. Valley College, which he said Hillel 818 has barely touched for three years. One of Hillel 818’s three staffers will be on the Pierce campus once a week, and Katz said he and his team are “still figuring out how we best meet and serve the needs of L.A. Valley College.”
The Federation-led reorganization didn’t come without its share of controversy. It started in September 2014, when Sanderson told the then-standing board that it needed to dissolve itself or else Federation would cut off its funding, effectively crippling the organization. One month earlier, executive director Judy Alban had resigned after learning that her grant requests to Federation were being denied because Federation disapproved of her having been promoted from the interim director post just a few months earlier. So a new director had to be found as well.
Jody Myers, CSUN professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program and one of the few prior board members to remain after the transition, said she disapproved of Federation’s tactics at the time of the reorganization, and she believes Federation’s reduced funding under Alban and its dissolution of the board hurt Jewish students on campus who would have benefited from a vibrant Hillel in the 2014-15 year.
“Once they fired Judy … I was considering not being on the board, but my board members said, ‘No, you have to be there,’ ” Myers said.
She acknowledges improvements at Hillel 818 since Katz took over and that Federation has ramped up its funding, but for Myers, that still doesn’t justify the process. “Things are very positive. I’m very happy with how David is functioning,” she said. “The fact that he’s working out well now does not justify the manner in which it was done.”
Jonathan Goldenberg, a CSUN junior, Hillel intern and head of CSUN Students for Israel, believes the reorganization and leadership change last year directly improved the pro-Israel group’s effectiveness.
“I kind of got to experience the change in leadership that happened firsthand,” Goldenberg said. “I went from being on my own to having a full staff to help me and the board plan events.”
He said Katz “has really brought life back to a Hillel that used to seem as if it wouldn’t [have] any potential.
“I’ve seen an incredible improvement both just in how Hillel itself functions and also how David really works with the various student groups that are under Hillel’s banner,” Goldenberg said.
This is not to understate, however, the long road to self-sustainability that Hillel 818 is just beginning. One sign of its ongoing dependency on Federation is that the more than $200,000 Federation gave to Hillel 818 for the 2015-16 school year is not grant-based funding, but “core” funding that’s not attached to specific programs — a rarity for Federation.
“Hillel 818, right now, is not self-sustaining and we have to help it get there,” Sanderson said, explaining the exception. “We’re invested in making sure this Hillel is the focal point of Jewish life on these three campuses, and to do that we have to provide, during this transition period, core support to make that happen.”
Sanderson said there’s no “formal timeline” for when he expects Hillel 818 to be financially self-sustaining — which would involve a mix of fundraising from its board, alumni, grants and parents of current students. He said he expects the process could take about three years:
“They started from way below sea level. The board they had before was not helping them raise money. We’re very, very happy. Everything we wanted to happen is happening, and our expectations so far have been exceeded.”
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