Details emerged last night about the deteriorating relationship between the Newberger Hillel’s recently fired executive director, Dan Libenson, and the organization that terminated him, the Jewish United Fund of Chicago (JUF), at an open discussion with two of the higher-ups involved.
In the second open meeting this week over the hotly debated firing, Libenson’s successor, Interim Director Paul Saiger (A.B. ’68), and John Lowenstein, the JUF official overseeing all Illinois Hillels, fielded pointed questions from Jewish students about why Libenson’s pink slip was necessary.
“What we’ve learned from the student group here is you guys want complete transparency, and we’re going to give you that to the best of our ability,” Lowenstein said.
Tensions have long been known to exist between the JUF and Libenson, whose organizational philosophy stressed greater freedom from the JUF, the owner of the Hillel building, endowment, and name.
However, Lowenstein explained, corporate autonomy for the Hillel was never a viable option, due to resistance from donors who gave money on the condition of JUF oversight.
What’s more, according to Saiger’s account, corporate independence would also have run against an agreement dating back more than 10 years between the Hillel, the JUF, and Newberger family.
In the early 1990s, the Newberger family funded a chapel inside the Hillel on campus, Saiger said after the meeting.
By 1999, the building had fallen into disrepair, and the Newbergers donated an additional $375,000 for repairs. Their only condition was that the building would become JUF property; the executive board promptly transferred ownership.
In 2005, beset with financial problems, the Hillel signed the rest of its assets—including its endowment and name—over to the JUF. However, Saiger said, the assets were to remain for the “eternal use” of U of C students.
The relationship with the JUF would grow to be a source of dismay, until in a March 28 letter to JUF President Steven Nasatir and Chair Skip Schrayer, Hillel board member Ruth O’Brien decried the Hillel’s lack of corporate independence.
The letter concluded with Libenson’s and the board’s plans to resign and form a separate Jewish organization elsewhere under a different name.
Harvey Barnett, an attorney representing Schrayer and Nasatir, shot back two days later:
“Your utter refusal to engage in any constructive discussion of fiscal responsibility, coupled with Dan Libenson’s totally inappropriate actions as an employee leave us no choice,” Barnett wrote. “We are compelled to accept the resignation of all the members of the advisory committee, effective immediately, and in the absence of such resignations, to terminate forthwith any further service on your part.”
Libenson’s firing, and the dismissal of his board, became inevitable once their intentions to form a separate organization became apparent, Lowenstein said after the meeting.
With Hillel and JUF still joined at the hip, Libenson is continuing his plans. In a conversation last night, he said he will run his new organization, JUChicago, just as he led Hillel for the past six years, hoping to serve Jewish undergraduates and graduate students on campus.
“At this point, I’m just focused on the future, and carrying on the great work Hillel has done in the past six years serving the community,” he said. Although the organization hasn’t secured a space, Libenson hopes to have done so by this fall.
Saiger has worked within the national Hillel organization since 1974. He will continue in his position, stabilizing the Hillel’s finances and putting together a new executive board, until next summer at the latest, he said. He will also lead the search for a new director.
Since the town hall meeting on Monday, students have formed the Jewish Student Working Group and are planning to form a student board that will liaise between Hillel and JUF employees and the rest of the student body.
“Dan was the driving force behind this program, and I have a great amount of respect for his work,” Saiger said. “The real tragedy of this situation is that students have been impacted in a painful way.”