Religion and the Recession

Elise Foley

It was known as one of the cushiest jobs on campus. For $10 an hour, students could take friends to coffee, attend dinners and meet people­ – all in the name of networking and sharing knowledge of opportunities in the Jewish community. The program, Hillel’s Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative, or CEI, has been at Northwestern for four years and hires at least 12 students each year, usually sophomores, to help spread the word about Taglit-Birthright Israel, Hillel-led Alternative Spring Break trips and other “experiences.” Students are given a stipend for projects, which could include programming or just grabbing a bite to eat to talk about Birthright trips. In the first two years, this all worked out to up to $2,000 per student in pay, plus another $1,000 to spend on projects. The economic recession changed things. Everyone was hit by it, but the Jewish population suffered from a one-two punch. On top of a bad economy, Jewish donors seemed to be disproportionately impacted by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Across the country, many Jewish groups are downsizing or closing their doors, partly due to an estimated 25 percent drop in their wealth. At Northwestern last spring, CEI’s future seemed up in the air. Funding for the program, which comes from a Hillel International grant, was uncertain. Andrea Jacobs, Fiedler Hillel’s director of engagement, decided to accept applications for the program anyway. In April, she brought together previous interns to determine the future of the program. Hillel International offered funding for eight interns, paid the same as in the past – something CEI programs all over the country accepted. But for those who think CEI is all about students taking money to socialize, Northwestern Hillel’s answer might come as a surprise: They took on the same number of interns but paid them less, making NU the lowest-paying CEI intern program in the country. Tightened BudgetsFiedler Hillel’s budget is huge – about $1.1 million, even post-economic drop – but 60 percent comes from fundraising from parents, alumni and other donors, says acting Executive Director Cydney Topaz. Hillel’s two parent organizations, Hillel International and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, each contribute another 10 percent of the budget, and the final 20 percent comes from the organization’s endowment. This money is divided into three categories: staff salaries, building costs and programs. CEI falls under the category of a program, and its participants’ salaries have not yet been determined but will be significantly less than $10 per hour, Jacobs says. The overall funding of the program is about half its previous sum. With a smaller budget in general, Fiedler Hillel shrunk its staff to four positions. Three staffers have been either laid off or left Hillel and were not replaced, although one position, that of the executive director, will be filled in the future. The approach isn’t unique to Northwestern; other Hillels have had to respond to leaner budgets and fewer donations. At University of Texas Hillel, the CEI budget has remained steady through the grant from Hillel International, but overall funding is down, Executive Director Rabbi David Komerofsky says. Like Northwestern Hillel’s budget, theirs is about $1.1 million and outreach is split between CEI interns and other students in a “double helix” or, as he jokingly calls it, “havdallah candle.” Paul Bessemer, executive director of University of Oregon Hillel, says his organization’s budget is down almost 40 percent. He was hired to the position last year, which he says “kind of felt like I got a mid-voyage promotion to be captain of the Titantic,” and has had to lead a series of cutbacks in the organization’s budget. They are no longer hosting marquee events and are focusing on organizing social service projects rather than big dinners. One position they lack is an engagement director, whose job would be to get students involved with Hillel and help connect them to opportunities like Birthright. Oregon Hillel doesn’t have CEI or an equivalent program that pays students to help with outreach, and most religious and cultural groups at Northwestern don’t either. Sheil Catholic Center, for instance, has seen a drop-off in grant money and major donations, says Father John Kartje, Sheil’s Chaplain and director. They have no formal engagement director, but instead ask all staff and students to focus on getting others involved. The CEI SolutionIn the past, Hillel’s approach also was to ask students to reach out to their friends, but decided to start CEI to reach even more students. The idea for CEI started at Hillel International’s Washington, DC, headquarters, where the director of strategy noticed a problem. The organization is built around reaching out to young Jewish people, the majority of whom are in college, but on college campuses, Hillel was only reaching a small proportion of Jewish students. Enter CEI. The idea was relatively simple: Take a dozen college students, teach them about networking and leadership, and ask them to meet other Jewish students and connect them with trips or programs they might be interested in. If activities at Hillel weren’t enough of a draw for students to learn more about Jewish culture, maybe dinner at a restaurant would be. The program piloted on seven campuses, including Northwestern. The first group of 12 students were hired in the spring of 2006 by Jacobs’ predecessor. Shauna Perlman, who graduated last year with a Communication degre, was one of the original 12 interns. Perlman wasn’t very involved in Hillel her freshman year, but was interested in Judaism. When she was approached about doing CEI, she was unclear on how it would work, but thought it could be a good opportunity. “It’s like any group on campus – like for the newspaper, you’re not going to know what it’s like until you write the first story,” she says. “You’re not exactly told what’s going to happen.” Jacobs didn’t know exactly how the CEI program would work either. She started working at Fiedler Hillel in the summer of 2006 and met some of the students in the first year of the CEI program at a training conference in Georgia before the start of the academic year. No one was entirely sure what they were getting themselves into. “Not all of them even came to Georgia because they were all skeptical about this,” she says. “I got there and was like, ‘I don’t really know what’s going on,’ and together we muddled through,” Jacobs says. “We figured it out.” How It Plays (or Pays) OutSome of figuring it out meant pushing back against Hillel International’s specific mandates. CEI interns are required to attend large group meetings on Wednesdays and small group sessions one day per week. Part of these sessions are devoted to Jewish learning with Hillel Rabbi Josh Feigelson. Another portion is for leadership training, which evolved from a curriculum based around much-reviled packets to a series of guest lecturers who help students with their networking skills. They check in about their plans, what they’re working on and what is going well. This creates a three-hour requirement for CEI interns, in addition to their networking duties.Students are supposed to build a network of at least 60 people, a seemingly random benchmark that Jacobs says she downplays to students. “It’s like a quantity or quality thing,” she explained. “If you hit 60, that’s great, but are all those quality relationships? If you’re not making meaningful relationships, you’re missing the point of the project.” Of course, some of those relationships are bound to be with people students already know. Some of the talk about CEI is true, at least in a general sense. Students can bill dinners to CEI if they’re using them to network, and their networks can and often do include friends. “Did I take my friends out to dinner, yes, but I wouldn’t just be with my best friend and say, ‘This is on Hillel,'” Perlman says. Dinners weren’t necessarily just about pushing Hillel programs and activitie
s, either. The point of CEI is that the interns are supposed to become friends with the people they are trying to reach, and reach the people they’re friends with. Most Hillel-funded events, then, are more about getting to know each other than selling students on trips to Israel. “We’re not doing it to stuff religion down anyone’s throat,” Perlman says. “I can see how people perceive that as abuse, but we’re not robots.” There are no blank checks – all spending comes first out of the students’ wallets, and if they abuse the system – which Jacobs says has happened – they can be denied reimbursement, Jacobs says, “because they’re spending their own money outright, we don’t always have to reimburse them.” There are loose restrictions on spending, but nothing formal. Wine is a part of the Jewish culture, and CEI dinners sometimes serve it, says Marisa Johnson, a Weinberg senior who did CEI as a sophomore and is now the treasurer for Hillel’s Leadership Council. “We’re not throwing ragers here,” she says. Events are supposed to be relevant, replicable and sustainable, meaning a pizza party isn’t usually considered a good use of CEI funds. “We want them to look at big picture things, not just one-off events, which is really tough to do because a lot of them are like, ‘Let’s have this big party,'” Jacobs says. “It did happen in the beginning, because we were kind of testing the waters, but this year we’re really telling them to focus on building relationships.” Interns in the program this year are paid “significantly less” than those in the first years of the program, Jacobs says, but CEI is still a job. This is partly to ensure students follow through on their commitments to the program, partly because they are asked to devote at least three hours per week to the program. “I think of it as not exactly a job, but definitely more than a club or an extracurricular,” says Nora Gannon, a Weinberg sophomore who is working on helping fill spots in Alternative Spring Break trips.She didn’t know what her pay would be until she was hired, but had heard about what CEI interns were paid before. She says she was “a little disappointed” to hear that the pay would be lower, but it didn’t make her less excited about doing the program. Hannah Roodman, a Communication sophomore who is focusing on signing students up for long-term Israel trips, says the money was attractive, but not her reason for joining the program. “I love that I’m Jewish – it’s a big part of my identity – and I love to meet new people,” she says. “It’s definitely not something people do just for the money.” The ResultCEI has achieved many of its goals. In its past four years on campus it has been a huge success, Jacobs says. Applications for Birthright and Alternative Spring Break trips have skyrocketed, and Jacobs now has to worry about keeping students off the waiting list for two years in a row instead of filling the list at all. There are three Hillel Alternative Spring Break trips, up from the single trip in the 2006-2007 academic year, and Jacobs says she hopes to add a fourth to the roster in the future. For Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to Israel for Jewish students, the rise was more dramatic: The year before CEI’s inception, about three NU students went on Birthright, Jacobs says. At its peak since then, Northwestern sent three full buses – 120 people – and left others on a waiting list. Past interns also praise CEI. Perlman now lives and works in L.A. in the entertainment industry and networking has become a necessity. She says “it’s insane” how the skills she learned in CEI have been very helpful to her career, she says, both in terms of building and surviving it. “I developed a really good value system through (CEI),” she says. “I work 12 hours a day, but how do I take time out for myself? CEI helped me with that.” Johnson was able to channel her CEI and Hillel experience into a summer internship at Hillel International where she, along with Medill senior Stacy Jacobson and three other interns, was in charge of a CEI-like effort for Jewish students working in D.C. for the summer. Along with other projects, they planned happy hours for Jewish interns and tried to build their networks.The main difference was funding: Johnson was paid for her efforts during the day, but networking dinners were on her own wallet.