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April 20, 2012

Nussbaum, Polonsky join faculty in rebuke of JUF

More than 30 Jewish faculty from across the University have signed onto a letter condemning the Jewish United Fund of Chicago’s (JUF) firing of former Executive Director Dan Libenson last month and the dismissal of his executive board.

The first signatory of the letter, which was drafted shortly after Libenson and the board were notified of their firing on March 30, was neuroscience professor Peggy Mason. It has since garnered the signatures of Law School professor Martha Nussbaum, physicist and mathematics professor Leo Kadanoff, and Pritzker School of Medicine Dean Kenneth Polonsky, among others.

“We are a group of faculty at the University of Chicago, and we write to you out of profound concern as to your purported firing of the Board of Directors of the University of Chicago Hillel, which includes prominent members of the University of Chicago faculty and administration, as well as five student representatives, and your termination of the employment of Executive Director Dan Libenson,” the letter opens.

It goes on to label the shift in leadership, which played out as tensions between the Newburger Hillel and the JUF came to a fever pitch, as “disgraceful,” “unwelcome,” and “profoundly un-Jewish, indeed unkind.”

Libenson was fired following a heated correspondence between his board and the JUF over finances and the Hillel’s corporate autonomy.

Specific signatories of the letter were unable to be contacted by print time to confirm the authenticity of the letter, which was provided to the Maroon by the board’s former vice president, Sara Segal-Loevy.

However, former board member and political science graduate student Adam Levine-Weinberg confirmed that faculty members had read and signed the letter.

“The people who are on [the letter] are on there of their own accord,” he said. “They were told about the situation; they found out about it through their own networks and were obviously not pleased with what the JUF had done and how they had done it.”

The letter concludes by urging the JUF to “do the right thing: Allow the University of Chicago Hillel to self-govern and concentrate your [JUF’s] efforts on initiatives and programs that only you, as a metropolitan organization for Jewish life and concerns, can achieve.”

Jewish students have formed a working group in the aftermath of the firing, as more members of the University community step forward in criticism of the move and the relationship between the Hillel and the JUF grows more contentious. Currently, the working group’s goals are to weigh in on any further decisions among the Hillel’s leadership regarding its involvement with the JUF, although its specific function will not be settled until the end of the month.

Students involved have also put together a Tumblr, titled “Transparency @UChicago Hillel,” where some of the correspondence between the Hillel and the JUF has been posted along with the faculty letter itself.

Libenson commented on the controversy stirred up by his firing.

“Students who have come to me about the issue are very confused and upset; they don’t quite understand it—it is quite a complex financial situation,” he said. “I have tried to help them understand it and to help them move forward.”

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