Controversial Israeli Program Helps Finance 13 New Orthodox Centers on U.S. Campuses

$66 million initiative has funded outreach centers run by Chabad and Olami, which are actively engaged in bringing Jews closer to Orthodox Judaism

The University of Nevada, home to an expanded Orthodox outreach center run by the Olami movement.
BLOOMBERG NEWS

Sixteen new Orthodox outreach centers have been set up on college campuses around the world over the past year, as part of a state-funded initiative aimed at strengthening Jewish identity in the Diaspora.

According to details obtained by Haaretz, 13 of the new centers are run by Chabad (also known as the Chabad-Lubavitch movement) and three by Olami, a movement affiliated with Aish Hatorah.

Like Chabad, Aish Hatorah is engaged in what is known as kiruv work – bringing unaffiliated Jews closer to Orthodox Judaism.

The Chabad and Olami centers were created with funding from a $66 million initiative by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, administered through a new U.S.-based organization called Mosaic United.

Mosaic United partnered with three Jewish organizations active on college campuses in this new initiative: Chabad, Olami and Hillel International. Unlike Chabad and Olami, Hillel – the largest Jewish campus organization in the world – is not affiliated with any particular stream of Judaism.

When it was created in August 2016, Mosaic United came under fire for teaming up with mainly Orthodox organizations. In its defense, it said these were the only organizations willing to participate in the initiative.

Israel’s diaspora affairs minister is Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Orthodox Habayit Hayehudi party that is affiliated with the settler movement. Bennett also serves as education minister. In recent weeks, the Education Ministry has been criticized for its kiruv initiatives in Israel’s non-Orthodox state schools.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett in Petah Tikva, April 27, 2017.
Nir Keidar

Of the new Chabad centers funded through Mosaic United, 11 are located on campuses in the United States, one is in France and the other is in South Africa. Of the new Olami centers, two are located on campuses in the United States (the University of Maryland and the University of Arizona), and one is in Britain (the University of Bristol in western England).

Chabad did not respond to a request for information regarding the specific campus locations of its new centers.

Funding from Mosaic United has also been used to expand and hire new staff at existing Jewish campus life centers operated by the three organizations.

According to information provided by Olami, its existing centers on nine U.S. campuses were able to broaden their reach over the past year thanks to the new initiative. These included New York University, University of Minnesota, University of Nevada and University of Buffalo.

A spokesman for Hillel said more than 100 campus centers it runs have participated this past year in programs partially sponsored by Mosaic United. But the funding has not been used to finance any new Hillel buildings, he added.

Under the agreement reached with Mosaic United, the Israeli government, through the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, provides a third of the funding for the programs; the three partnering organizations provide another third, divided equally among them; and private philanthropists provide the other third. Mosaic United is responsible for raising funds from private philanthropists.

A spokeswoman for the Diaspora Affairs Ministry said 20,000 students on 300 campuses around the world took part in programs promoted by Mosaic United during its first year of operation.

She added that, because of the initiative, students on 38 campuses were exposed for the first time to “meaningful activities aimed at strengthening their identity and connection to Israel.”

Mosaic United CEO Amy Holtz stepped down from her position in March, after just a brief period on the job, without providing any explanation. Holtz had previously served as president of Jerusalem U, an organization involved in Jewish outreach and Israel advocacy.

Since her resignation, Mosaic United – which the Diaspora Affairs Ministry crowns its “flagship project” – has been operating without an organizational leader.

A Diaspora Affairs Ministry spokeswoman said that Holtz “succeeded in creating important foundations for Mosaic United, and we thank her for that.” The organization is currently searching for a replacement, the spokeswoman added.

Last month, a group of 100 American rabbis and rabbinical students signed a letter calling on Hillel to pull out of Mosaic United.

“We cannot stand by as [Naftali] Bennett now spends $66 million through Mosaic United to gate-keep Jewish identity and impose his anti-pluralistic agenda in Jewish communities on North American college campuses,” they wrote.

Late last year, Yossi Beilin – a former Israeli justice minister and deputy foreign minister – stepped down from Mosaic United’s steering committee in protest at its Orthodox slant.

Bennett is known to have a soft spot for Chabad. On a trip to the United States last year to promote Mosaic United, he revealed that his nonobservant Israeli wife grew closer to Judaism during the five years they spent in New York because of a Chabad-sponsored program she attended called “Beginner’s Minyan.”