Furor Over Hil­lel Takeover Forces Post­pone­ment of Famed Food Fight

Forward Magazine - - News - By Josh Nathan-Kazis Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@for­ward.com or fol­low him on Twit­ter @ josh­nathankazis

Which are bet­ter, latkes or Ha­man­tashen? This year, con­tin­ued anger among the Univer­sity of Chicago fac­ulty over the Chicago Jewish fed­er­a­tion’s takeover of the cam­pus Hil­lel means that students there will have to wait a few ex­tra months to find out.

For each of the past 66 years, on the Tues­day be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, pro­fes­sors at the Univer­sity of Chicago have held a mock-se­ri­ous de­bate in front of in­creas­ingly large crowds, weigh­ing the mer­its of the two tra­di­tional Jewish hol­i­day foods. Not so this se­mes­ter. Pro­fes­sors who had com­mit­ted to the event dropped out over the sum­mer, cit­ing anger over the fed­er­a­tion’s fir­ing of the Hil­lel di­rec­tor and the dis­missal of the Hil­lel board.

“It’s just a stupidly bru­tal thing to do, and it cer­tainly pissed me off,” said Ted Co­hen, a Univer­sity of Chicago phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor and

‘They don’t want the LatkeHa­man­tash de­bate to go on.’

the Latke-Ha­man­tash De­bate’s long­time mod­er­a­tor, of the way the fed­er­a­tion han­dled the Hil­lel di­rec­tor’s fir­ing.

Co­hen’s de­bate, sched­uled orig­i­nally for Novem­ber 20, is a ma­jor event on the Univer­sity of Chicago’s Jewish cal­en­dar. It filled a 1,000-seat venue on the Univer­sity of Chicago cam­pus last year, and has been cov­ered by The New York Times and taken on the road for out-of-state show­downs. Co­hen will mod­er­ate a Latke-Ha­man­tash De­bate this aca­demic year, al­beit months later, in Fe­bru­ary. And Hil­lel it­self, which cre­ated the event and has spon­sored it for more than half a cen­tury, won’t have a role.

The dis­rup­tion around LatkeHa­man­tash comes as the cam­pus Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions at the Univer­sity of Chicago strug­gle to re­turn to nor­malcy af­ter the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Fed­er­a­tion of Metropoli­tan Chicago fired Hil­lel’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Daniel Liben­son, last March and dis­missed his board.

Since then, Liben­son and his board have split off to form jU, a new cam­pus or­ga­ni­za­tion that is oper­at­ing in com­pe­ti­tion with Hil­lel. The Hil­lel, mean­while, is on its sec­ond in­terim ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. And the Jewish Stu­dent Assem­bly, a stu­dent group founded to de­fend stu­dent in­ter­ests amid the tur­moil, has “gone into hi­ber­na­tion,” ac­cord­ing to its for­mer leader.

“Students are re­mark­ably re­silient,” said An­drea Hoffman, the cur­rent in­terim ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the school’s Hil­lel.

Last March, the Chicago fed­er­a­tion fired Liben­son and dis­banded the Hil­lel’s ad­vi­sory board af­ter the board called for the fed­er­a­tion to en­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions to­ward grant­ing the Hil­lel in­de­pen­dence. In an ar­range­ment per­haps unique to Illi­nois, the Chicago fed­er­a­tion owns the Univer­sity of Chicago Hil­lel. The Hil­lel board threat­ened to re­sign if the fed­er­a­tion de­clined to en­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Upon dis­miss­ing the Hil­lel board and Liben­son, the fed­er­a­tion charged that Liben­son and the board had mis­man­aged the Hil­lel’s fi­nances.

Co­hen, who has mod­er­ated the an­nual Latke-Ha­man­tash De­bate for each of the past 30 years, give or take, served on the Hil­lel board years ago and has friends who were among the group of Hil­lel board mem­bers that the fed­er­a­tion dis­missed. He got the job dur­ing the ten­ure of Rabbi Daniel Leifer, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Chicago Hil­lel. Leifer died in 1996. “Danny Leifer liked what I did, which was to make sav­age fun of ev­ery­one in the de­bate,” Co­hen said. “I’ve done it ever since.”

Co­hen said he was va­ca­tion­ing in Maine over the sum­mer when he re­ceived two emails from fac­ulty mem­bers say­ing they wouldn’t par­tic­i­pate in the event’s 2012 it­er­a­tion. The fac­ulty mem­bers cited anger at the fed­er­a­tion’s dis­missal of Liben­son and at Co­hen’s own de­ci­sion not to par­tic­i­pate in the de­bate. Co­hen told the For­ward that his col­leagues were mis­in­formed: He hadn’t ac­tu­ally made up his mind at the time that he wouldn’t mod­er­ate, but their de­ci­sions helped sway him.

Co­hen cited per­sonal feel­ings among the rea­sons that he had ini­tially ob­jected to mod­er­at­ing this year’s de­bate. “I am loyal to my friends, and the fed­er­a­tion in this re­ally bru­tal way threw them all out, and they don’t want the Latke-Ha­man­tash De­bate to go on,” he said. The tradition seemed doomed un­til ear­lier this se­mes­ter, when a group of students from the Jewish fra­ter­nity AEPi asked Hil­lel to or­ga­nize this year’s de­bate in­de­pen­dently. Be­cause of sched­ul­ing is­sues, the event could not be held un­til mid-Fe­bru­ary, but Co­hen con­firmed that he will par­tic­i­pate.

De­spite the loss of a mar­quee an­nual event, Hoffman said she was pleased that the students would be tak­ing on the LatkeHa­man­tash event, pre­sent­ing it as a move to­ward greater stu­dent in­volve­ment in driv­ing pro­gram­ming. Hoffman also said that when the AEPi students ap­proached her about tak­ing on the event, “I couldn’t say yes fast enough.”

Fol­low­ing his dis­missal, Liben­son pledged to cre­ate a new cam­pus group to carry on his work at the Univer­sity of Chicago. He’s made good on that pledge. JU has three full-time staff mem­bers and two part-time. The or­ga­ni­za­tion main­tains of­fices in a church build­ing near cam­pus. Liben­son told the For­ward that he’s raised most of the $400,000 an­nual bud­get he’s pro­jected for this new or­ga­ni­za­tion. Board mem­bers of his group, many of whom were on the dis­missed Hil­lel board, have given to the ef­fort.

Liben­son’s group is of­fer­ing two in­tern­ship pro­grams sim­i­lar to some of those he ran at Hil­lel. It has also spon­sored an off-cam­pus un­der­grad­u­ate apart­ment for Jewish students, a pro­gram that Liben­son likened to the Moishe House pro­gram that sets up Jewish-themed hous­ing for re­cent col­lege grad­u­ates.

“There’s been tremen­dous en­thu­si­asm among students to par­tic­i­pate in our in­tern­ship pro­grams and all of our pro­grams,” Liben­son said. “Hil­lel seems to be a non­fac­tor in whether or not students are par­tic­i­pat­ing in our pro­grams.”

Hoffman said that she didn’t mind the com­pe­ti­tion from Liben­son’s group. “From our per­spec­tive, there’s more Jewish life hap­pen­ing on cam­pus,” she said. “It’s a win all around.”

Mean­while, a stu­dent- run group founded in May to me­di­ate be­tween the var­i­ous pro­fes­sion­al­run Jewish or­ga­ni­za­tions on cam­pus on be­half of students seems to have dis­banded. In an email, Doni Bloom­field, who is the for­mer ex­ec­u­tive chair of the Jewish Stu­dent Assem­bly and a Univer­sity of Chicago ju­nior, said the group was no longer nec­es­sary.

“Due to the can­dor, con­vivi­al­ity and ci­vil­ity of the Jewish community on cam­pus so far this year there hasn’t been much need for the Jewish Stu­dent Assem­bly,” Bloom­field wrote.

Starch Wars:


Pro­fes­sors opted out of the Latke-Ha­man­taschen de­bate to protest the fir­ing of Hil­lel ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Daniel Liben­son and the dis­missal of the Hil­lel board.

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