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Financial crisis spurs major FCJL overhaul

After years of struggling financially, the Freeman Center for Jewish Life is undergoing drastic changes in infrastructure as it seeks to reach out to more national donors while simultaneously developing closer relationships with Jewish students on campus.

The University announced Tuesday that FCJL Director Jonathan Gerstl will take on a new role as executive director of Jewish life at Duke. The announcement comes not long after FCJL's board decided to dissolve itself in the interest of establishing financial stability for the center and one-and-a-half years after an external review first suggested that the center reconstitute the board in order to address problem areas in financial resource development and fiscal oversight.

In lieu of the board will be an advisory committee, which Gerstl said he hopes will be more encompassing on a national scale and take on considerably greater responsibility in fundraising.

As executive director of Jewish life, Gerstl will set a vision for Jewish life at Duke and take on greater responsibility in assuming fundraising duties, leaving FCJL's day-to-day and programming operations in the hands of a new center director, whom Gerstl hopes to have chosen by the time students arrive for the fall semester.

"This will allow me the freedom to move forward with the growth and financial stability of the Freeman Center," Gerstl said. He also noted that the board's dissolution should provide the center with a clean slate, as opposed to one sullied by years of financial crisis.

"This board was a great board to start the Freeman Center and Jewish life in a good direction on how policy should be set for the building and how Jewish life on campus should look," Gerstl said. "Unfortunately they weren't able always to [address] the financial need of the Freeman Center, and I think that them dissolving themselves will let us look at how we redesign around people who will help Jewish life on a fiduciary level."

Dr. Harold Kudler, former director of FCJL's board, said the board's unanimous decision to disband as of July 1 came from an understanding of its own shortcomings as a group with both advisory and financial responsibilities. He noted that the University's increased administrative control over the center is a reasonable trade-off, considering that former board members will have the opportunity to serve on the new advisory board.

"If we could have gone back in time, this is the formula we should have had from the beginning," Kudler said.

Kudler said FCJL leaders first realized they were in the midst of a "genuine financial crisis" in October 2001--at the same time that the young center received the results of its first external review.

"We realized that the only reason the Freeman Center was floating at all was the reserve funds from the center's construction," Kudler said. "However, we were riding on tremendous enthusiasm. It had taken 13 years for a center for Jewish life at Duke to open its doors. When it finally happened, there was such a release that people were willing to put off solving our problems for the next year."

At the same time, he said, the fundraising process never fully developed, leaving the center with the alarming realization that its financial bubble was going to burst by the beginning of the fiscal year 2002.

With an annual operating budget exceeding $500,000, the board realized it would never be able to fund the center's facilities, staff and programs on its own.

Kudler said the board considered a number of options at this time. The center cut costs by reducing its staff and by accepting University assistance for building maintenance and utility expenses, as well as University oversight of the center's dining facility. Kudler said this move saved the center over $100,000 a year in losses.

He added that one of the board's most effective decisions was to bring in Gerstl as the center's director last year. As FCJL director, Gerstl concentrated most of his efforts on meeting with alumni and parents about the need to support Jewish life at the University. Gerstl noted that this year's success has put the center in the black for monthly operations and opened the door for more donations and support.

"Jonathan Gerstl was a great fundraiser, out pounding the pavement and raising funds all the time," Kudler said.

Although the center has charted a strong growth in fundraising since Gerstl took the helm, raising nearly double what the center had raised in previous years, FCJL leaders recognized that the prospect of the center staying afloat without more University assistance was still bleak.

In addition, both Gerstl and the board recognized that while fundraising efforts had improved due to Gerstl's efforts, professional development and student outreach had not achieved their full potential without a full-time, on-site director.

"The best opportunity to succeed was to work with the University to form a new kind of partnership, in which we would effectively become part of student life," Kudler said.

And this is precisely what has happened with the dissolution of the board. The University will take possession of the Freeman Center building and provide its facilities and services to students. Kudler said the University's additional financial support should allow FCJL staffers to develop a more successful program, which should in turn attract additional support and investment.

"We don't have to spend every board meeting saying, 'How do we keep the lights on? How do we pay your salaries?'" Kudler said.

Meanwhile, Gerstl's new position will give him oversight of Jewish life on campus beyond the FCJL and will allow him to take on a hectic travel itinerary for continued fundraising efforts nationwide.

Gerstl was hired as FCJL director after the board forced out former director Roger Kaplan, citing his inability to fundraise successfully.

Calling his firing unfair, Kaplan filed a complaint and later settled with the University. In an interview with The Chronicle last year, Kaplan said that the time period by which the board judged his fundraising abilities included the several months after the Sept. 11 attacks, in which he was instructed not to fundraise in the highest-concentrated Jewish alumni bases in the country, as well as a period of several months in which he took a leave from his position to adopt a child.

Furthermore, Kaplan said his fundraising was greatly hampered by the board's inability to assist his efforts, including simple responsibilities such as calling one or two top donors he had assigned to each member. Following the 2001 external review and before his firing, Kaplan said he attempted to persuade the board to take on more fundraising, but to no avail.

Alex Garinger contributed to this story.


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