Saturday, January 20, 2007

TWAJ: Hillel's hypocrisy

Rabbi Hillel said that "every student matters; for there were many disaffiliated people who were attracted back to Judaism, and out of them sprang honest, committed and worthy Jews".

UJS-Hillel said that demographics and student needs had changed, and it was time to start closing down residential Hillel Houses under their control, and cease supporting local communities in keeping their own residences open (although most local Hillel committees had not felt much support anyway). What students need now, apparently, is to live in regular halls of residence, with some kosher self-catering options, and some kind of day drop-in centre on the side.

The problem is, halls of residence are getting more expensive as they add more services due to legislative pressures, student demand, and in some cases financial drivers that see university accommodation contracted out to the private sector, with more emphasis on providing premium services with richer margins (and, so the theory goes according to one estates manager I spoke to, inherently more responsible and civilized tenants).

At the same time, many traditional Jews of all financial means are looking to have more than just a kosher kitchenette on their corridor (besides which, I cannot imagine a "Jews-only" kitchen access policy), and impoverished Jews are priced out of much of this accommodation anyway. Additionally I have an uncomfortable feeling about a Jewish corridor or floor of a block, and so do many universities.

Halls of residence are also largely a first-year experience. Where do the students go for the remainder of their degrees? The really kashrut-concerned ones have to cluster together and rent somewhere which they kasher with care and the assistance of the local student chaplain (if they still have one). The remnant is often scattered far and wide, with individual and collective Jewish identity placed at similar risk of dilution.

Above all, my experience of Hillels on smaller campuses is that if they are well situated, properly maintained, and the right blend of residents can be found, they provide a unique atmosphere that cannot be replicated in a shul, day centre or student halls.

My view is that this is an organisation that has given up on the most difficult of its challenges, and is going for a facile, lowest common denominator, quantity-over-quality approach. It seems that much of the decision-making process taken by the central organisation on the future of Hillel Houses is now driven by the need to reduce the financial and time commitment needed to bring local Hillels into the 21st century. Closing them and having a drop-in day centre is not the solution.

Yes, it is difficult to support residential Hillels, but most communities fund and run them, and need minimal interference from the centre, except for guidance on the professional side of operating accommodation, such as on the new HMO requirements.

In fact, one of the most important reasons for having a residential Hillel House nowadays is the fact that they are the only student houses that are not run for profit. Even university halls of residence are now often required to pay their way, and student rents everywhere have risen in line with house prices. This puts the average room cost of a Hillel at substantially below the rest of the market.

It therefore seems to be the height of irony that in a flash of PR, UJS-Hillel shows off its spangly new day centres in places like Bristol, whilst quietly allowing the local community to take the beautiful residential Hillel for use as their new shul, leaves students to the vagaries of an expensive rental market, and then is quoted in articles in the JC:

UJS-Hillel operations director Gerry Lucas stressed that "not all students conform to the Jewish stereotype. You don't know what goes on behind closed doors." ... UJS-Hillel has distributed £129,000 in grants to some 150 students over the last decade.

Well, it depends which closed doors. Does Gerry mean the closed doors of Edinburgh Hillel, where despite a growing jsoc and a stunning level of subsidised accommodation right next to the shul, university halls or residence and the city centre, the community shut it down due to lack of use?

But why is this central Hillel's responsibility? Well, Hillels are advertised only by the central organisation, so if they are not promoted by UJS-Hillel, few first year students will go there. And if the local communities lack the expertise to run accommodation and the central body is not providing it, and hence are failing to attract a minimum number of residents, they will cut their losses and use the building for other things (in Edinburgh, it is now the rabbi's house).

Combine that with longstanding UJS/UJIA policy that - intended or not - is starving small jsocs of resources and assistance, and drives prospective students to a handful of larger campuses (Jewish-wise, that is). The regional Hillels - where they are most needed as a focal point, given the lack of sheer and consistent jsoc numbers - do not stand a chance.

This is a vicious circle - first kill off demand, then close them down due to an apparent lack of demand, or vice versa. Save the local community the bother, further achieve the aim of pushing students into a decreasing number of campus choices, where you can ensure your statistics are hit in terms of investment per capita per event attended, or whatever the latest metric is.

Then get your organisation some good coverage in the JC by coming over all concerned about Jewish student poverty. £129,000 to 150 students over 10 years is an average of 15 grants of under £1,000 each year. Compare this to the unheralded £1m subsidy of residential Hillel Houses in the same period (see footnote).

Surely, the policy should be to improve local Hillel accommodation and focus resources on getting an appropriate means-testing system in place, to help Jewish students from less financially comfortable backgrounds in a way that is not demeaning and encourages their fullest participation in student life, by giving them priority access to places in residential Hillels?

But instead, we find for example that at Nottingham, where the residential Hillel has been closed and a non-residential formula applied, "the talented young interior designer Adam Share has evolved a 'feel' to the centre which combines the practical with the imaginative to create a dynamic Jewish space that is warm and welcoming. On the accommodation front, UJS Hillel has secured a number of kosher flats in the impressive Riverside development which are managed on our behalf by Unite plc."

A visit the Unite website for Riverside finds that just to get in the door and pay on a monthly basis, you need £700, and there's a surcharge for what we now think of as basics like internet connection. They carefully don't tell you what the weekly rental is, but agencies are listing it with an average room price over £100 per week.

It seems to be abundantly clear that the priorities of UJS-Hillel are nowhere near those of their claimed market. The lack of authentic and affordable kosher accommodation is penalising less well-off and/or more orthodox students unless they want to choose from half a dozen universities which retain such facilities, or are happy to stretch themselves financially or religiously, to live in expensive student halls and try to create a kosher Jewish environment in the heart of the most treif and irreligious part of campus.
Most importantly, I believe that the vibrant and warm atmosphere of a good Hillel House is created naturally, given the right encouragement, mostly because it is a Hillel Home. Take that away, and you have a glorified scout hut.

Why not retain the accommodation where appropriate AND create the top-spec drop-in facilities? If the desire is to drive down risk, cost and time whilst maximising usage and atmosphere, centralise the organisation properly, and achieve economies of scale by running it as a non-profit residential property management and rental company with additional facilities for non-residents, using regional committees and communities as local agents.

It's not like our community is short of property entrepreneurs (Reuben, Tchenguiz, Kemsley, Sugar,

So we can conclude that "every student matters; for there were many disaffiliated people who we denied low-cost kosher accommodation to, but were attracted back to Judaism by our drop-in centres and disbursements of petty-change scholarships, and out of them - somehow - sprang honest, committed and worthy Jews."

Donations to found a network of Freedmanslife-Shamai residential student centres are now being accepted.

Footnote re the £1m local Hillel subsidy

Historically there were roughly 15 sites, with an average of say 10 rooms each, setting aside Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and London, which are much bigger and are almost halls of residence in their own right.

Assuming they achieve roughly 80% occupancy, that's 120 rooms per year, or 1200 student-rooms in the decade. On average, some basic research shows Hillel room rentals to be 20%-35% cheaper than the equivalent private sector alternative. Given that Hillels usually do not charge for summer voids, and often subsidise a range of amenities, the real cost may be even less.

With average student rent at £70 per week in the last 10 years outside London (and rising very fast indeed if you take the last 3-5 years only) according to published statistics, we shall assume regional Hillel rentals averaged £50 (according to AJ6 handbooks from the period and checking with former residents). Now assume that students pay 40 weeks' rent a year (in fact, most landlords charge for the whole year, with a slight discount in the summer, but usually not Hillel, so this is another hidden subsidy).

Multiply that all together, and we find that over 10 years, local Hillels have given an effective grant of nearly £1m to students.

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