Economic perils take toll on Hillel

GW Hillel is looking to pull itself out of a financial hole after losing 8 percent of its small endowment in the Bernard Madoff scandal last month and seeing a 22 percent drop in donations for the year.

Robert Fishman, Hillel’s executive director, sent an e-mail in late December appealing for donations to make up some of the nearly $40,000 drop in fundraising from 2007 to 2008. Hillel provides programming and services to GW’s Jewish community, which is about a third of the total undergraduate population.

“With the economic crisis of 2008, most philanthropies are really hurting, and we are one of them,” Fishman wrote in the e-mail. “Fundraising for the fiscal year is down 22 percent from last year at the same time. We need to raise $36,000 to get back to where we need to be.”

In addition to flagging donations, Hillel, along with several other D.C.-area groups with endowments managed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, suffered an 8 percent endowment loss as a result of the multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Madoff.

Fishman estimated that the group lost about $6,000 of its endowment in the Madoff scandal, but he said these losses would not force the group to cut programs.

“GW Hillel does not touch its endowment. It is used for emergency situations only,” Fishman wrote in an e-mail. “Thus, it will not affect our day to day operations.”

Hillel’s poor fundraising year, however, is likely to affect the programs and services it can offer. A majority of Hillel’s annual budget – 85 percent – is drawn from fundraising.

The Jewish Students Association, which receives its own funding from Student Association allocations, is not expected to be hurt by the downturn in fundraising or Hillel’s injured endowment, JSA President Josh Abrams said.

Abrams, however, acknowledged that the Madoff scandal has wide-reaching implications in the Jewish community and for groups like GW Hillel.

“Unfortunately, the world of Jewish philanthropy is small,” said Abrams, a junior. “When such a scheme occurs, Jewish philanthropists who donate money are hurt. As a result, Jewish organizations that provide services to Jews all around the country are hurt.”

Other area Hillel organizations said they were also affected by the economic downturn and the Madoff scandal.

Rabbi Kenneth Cohen, director of Hillel at American University, said that while his chapter of Hillel did not have any funds invested with Madoff, several of its donors suffered losses, and its single biggest donor has signaled that he will have to cut back on contributions to Hillel as a result of the situation.

“That has been a philanthropic Pearl Harbor,” Cohen said.

Ari Israel, executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland, said it is difficult to predict exactly how Maryland’s Hillel will be affected, but the group has taken several steps to protect against economic volatility, including cutting costs.

“It is unlikely that Maryland Hillel will hit the fundraising target that we set for 2008/2009,” Israel said in an e-mail. “At the same time, we are, at this point, fiscally secure, as many of our partners and benefactors have generously realized the vital role that MD Hillel plays in developing this and the future generations of Jewish leadership and affiliation.”

Although Maryland’s Hillel also suffered endowment losses as a result of the Madoff scandal, Israel said that, as in GW’s case, the endowment funds were not intended for immediate use and the group will work to rebuild the lost money.

Sarah Scire contributed to this report.

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