The New Orlando Magic

May 24, 2013

Many American universities share the common problems of insufficient student housing and inadequate funding for their Hillel student centers. As recently reported by JTA, supporters of Hillel at the University of Central Florida in Orlando have come up with an approach to address both problems, which combines entrepreneurship with philanthropy. The Orlando plan deserves careful attention, since it could serve as a model for other fiscally challenged communities.

The goal at UCF is to be the country’s first financially self-sustaining Hillel student center. In order to achieve that goal,  supporters are harnessing the power of Florida’s hot real estate market and combining philanthropy, professional interests and hard financial projections in an effort to address very clear charitable needs. Slated to open in a few short months is a $60 million, 600,000-square-foot luxury dormitory on the UCF campus. On the ground floor of the seven-story building will be a 20,000-square-foot Hillel center. Hillel’s operations will be funded, at least in part, from profits from the 600 luxury dorm rooms above, which will be rented at the rate of $800 per student per month.

According to Sidney Pertnoy, a Miami businessman and philanthropist, who is chairman-elect of Hillel International, “It’s a unique cash-flow model, and we’re super excited about it. We’re hoping this is a prototype for other communities.”

The Orlando project is described as a collaboration among local Jewish philanthropists, Hillel and UCF. One philanthropist donated the large tract of land for the project, while another donated his construction expertise to oversee the building of the student center and dormitory. The backers predict that the dormitory — which will be open to all students — could deliver about $350,000 annually to Hillel, freeing up Hillel professionals to focus on building Jewish life on the UCF campus.

We don’t know enough about the UCF Hillel project to det-ermine whether it will succeed.  We certainly hope that it will. But we do know that the creative thinking that developed the plan and its implementation are worthy of serious discussion and consideration. The project’s innovative mixing of charitable giving, entrepreneurship and professional talent is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we need to help address the mounting needs of our dollar-starved system.

Over time, we will learn whether the Orlando experiment works and whether the UCF model is replicable on other college campuses.  But the more important message comes from the creative minds that developed the plan and the committed professionals and volunteers who took the concept from planning to implementation. The combination of charitable donor passion and the careful harnessing of talent, followed by the creative implementation of the plan, could represent a major new direction in Jewish organizational funding for the future.

It is worth watching the development of potentially new magic from Orlando.

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