Hillels of Georgia honored Atlanta entrepreneur Michael Coles Oct. 29 for his volunteer work with the organization’s governing board. The Georgia group, part of the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, currently serves 5,000 students at 24 colleges and universities around the state.
Starting in 2012, Coles chaired the Hillels of Georgia for six years, during which time he saw rising incidents of hate crimes bring about what he called “a big change” in the organization.
He accepted the organization’s Billi and Bernie Marcus Visionary Award at Hillel’s virtual “Salute to Michael Cole: The Impact of One Tough Cookie” last month. The annual gala celebrating students and honoring Coles was originally scheduled for March but was rescheduled because of the pandemic.
At the virtual event, Coles described the organization’s work against anti-Semitism as an important issue.
“We were always a home away from home. We were about Shabbat dinners. We were about high holidays, but we were never about safe. The word safe had never appeared in any of our literature for all the many years that Hillel had been around. And now it’s going to become probably the important work of Hillels of Georgia in keeping our Jewish students safe.”
Coles also announced that work on a new Hillel House would soon begin at the University of Georgia. He described the building, which was purchased with a grant from The Marcus Foundation as a “world class” Hillel facility that would fill a major need on the Athens campus.
“It will give students at UGA a place they can call home and a place they can come and study and be together and feel that sense of safety and that sense of family.”
The Marcus Foundation has been a major donor to the organization on both the local and national level. Twelve years ago, the foundation provided a challenge grant of $3 million to Hillel at Emory University. That led to over $9 million in additional gifts to build a 10,000-square-foot building that serves as a center for Jewish life on the campus and the headquarters for Hillel of Georgia.
Four years ago, the foundation donated $38 million to Hillel International to launch a multiyear program called Hillel Talent Grants aimed at recruiting, training, and retaining talented leaders for campus Hillels.
Locally, the organization has attracted major support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and many of the major donors in the community. The new executive director of the organization Elliot Karp, who took over in March, has a long history as a fundraiser, primarily in a number of local Jewish Federation organizations. The host of the videotaped tribute to Coles was Mark Silberman, who has just stepped down as the chair of the Atlanta Federation board.
Coles achieved great financial success as the founder of the Great American Cookie Company and the Caribou Coffee Company and became a major philanthropist in the Atlanta community. He is a past chair of the Kennesaw University board and endowed the Coles College of Business at the school.
At the October fundraiser, which was distributed on YouTube, his work against anti-Semitism was praised by Elan Carr. The former national president of the Jewish fraternity AEPi, Carr is now the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.
“Sometimes Jewish students are besieged, harassed, discriminated against, forced to choose between their identity on the one hand and physical safety on the other,” Carr said. “Michael wouldn’t have that. And so he is passionate and invested in the Jewish identity of students so that students can live Jewish lives, connect with their heritage and stand up and proudly support the state of Israel.”
Coles told the annual meeting of the organization last year that his volunteer service to the organization was the most important job he’s ever had. He went on to say at the time that the work of the organization to provide a safe haven was crucial program for the future.
“We have seen in the last six years more students no longer self-identifying themselves as Jewish. There’s probably a lot of reasons for it, but probably the biggest one is that they’re not sure that they would feel safe on campus if people knew that they were Jewish. And we’ve got to move forward in a way that eliminates that fear.”
Jewish communal institutions such as the Hillel programs are expected to face increasing challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus that has shown no sign of abating has already caused widespread layoffs and furloughs at Jewish community centers and other Jewish organizations across the United States.
Earlier this year Doron Krakow, CEO of the JCC Association of North America, told JTA that the community need would exceed $800 million if the COVID crisis drags into a second year.
Still, for Coles, the work he does and the financial commitment he makes to Hillel continues.
“We are on the front lines of saving Judaism and that’s it. That’s why this has been so important to me.”
- Bob Bahr
- Michael Coles
- Hillels of Georgia
- Billi and Bernie Marcus
- Billi and Bernie Marcus Visionary Award
- The Marcus Foundation
- University of Georgia
- Emory University
- Hillel International
- Hillel Talent Grants
- Mark Silberman
- Atlanta Federation
- Great American Cookie Company
- Caribou Coffee Company
- Kennesaw State University
- Elan Carr