Comprehensive excellence initiative underway at Hillel JUC, other chapters

Comprehensive excellence initiative underway at Hillel JUC, other chapters

Hillel Jewish University Center students participating in a reception. (Photo provided by the Hillel Jewish University Center)
Hillel Jewish University Center students participating in a reception. (Photo provided by the Hillel Jewish University Center)

Pittsburgh is at the heart of a new initiative designed to improve the functioning of Hillel chapters around the country through the setting of benchmarks and the addition of needed personnel.

Over the past year, a pilot program funded by the Beacon Foundation and the David S. and Karen A. Shapira Foundation and known as the Comprehensive Excellence Initiative has been underway between Hillel International, Hillel JUC, Penn State Hillel and Central Florida Hillel. According to Shapira Foundation executive director Joshua Donner, it will “set a new bar for excellence within the Hillel movement and create a template for how Hillel international can work with local Hillels to achieve that level of excellence.”

Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director, said that the initiative “provides a Hillel with the tools and resources” to, among other goals, increase student engagement.

Marcus explained that over the course of the year, any one Hillel should engage 90 percent of Jewish undergraduates; 70 percent of students should attend at least one Hillel activity or program during the year; 40 percent of students should attend four or more Hillel activities; and 20 percent should attend “high-impact” activities such as Birthright or Onward Israel, a Jewish Agency program that provides participants with an “immersive and transformative resume-building experience in Israel, featuring opportunities such as internships, service learning, academic courses and fellowships.”

Donner said that most Hillels are “good at deeply engaging a core group of students on campus, but part of the project is about the other Jews on campus who aren’t engaging.” To reach such students, “it will take a lot of resources and new ways of doing business on campus.” He cited more staff and greater relationship building as techniques central to the enterprise.

Under the pilot program, Hillel JUC recently hired two new staff members: Michael Feinberg and Courtney Strauss. Feinberg serves as the organization’s Israel engagement coordinator and identifies, engages and recruits students for Birthright, Onward Israel and MASA programs. Strauss works as the director of engagement and strategizes with and identifies different communities on campus.

While Marcus praised the efforts of both Feinberg and Strauss, David Katz, Hillel JUC’s assistant director, said that the additional hires have enabled it to increase its level of student engagement.

“There is a 30 to 40 percent increase across the board in how we’re interacting with Jewish students,” said Katz.

 Aaron Weil, Central Florida Hillel’s executive director and CEO — he’s also the former executive director of Hillel JUC — said that the pilot project is emphasizing collaboration between all parties.

“It’s a three-way partnership,” he said. “Each partner brings a unique talent.”

When describing the opportunity to work with the Shapira Foundation, Weil stated, “The value proposition is not just the financial capital, but the intellectual capital through Josh Donner, David and Cindy [Shapira]. They’ve been doing this for years.”

Weil called the foundations’ gifts “measurements-based philanthropy” and described the concept as “we will invest in you, but we will be seeing how you do, just like a mutual fund in a portfolio.”

As opposed to previous generations of donors, Weil said that the “next generation of philanthropists are far more involved,” and he expects other philanthropists to follow the Shapiras’ model and “invest in excellence.”

Marcus said that the initiative “gives us the boost to go from great to excellent” and hopes that other funders will “join us on this journey.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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