What is the role of Hillel on campus today? How does it reach an increasingly diverse student population that is, according to the Pew study, less connected to Judaism but still proud to be Jewish? How can it be welcoming to everyone? How should it handle debates between Jewish groups and anti-Israel groups on campus? Does it need a new paradigm for changing times?
These are some of the questions Eric Fingerhut, a former U.S. congressman and leader of Ohio’s system of public universities and colleges, who became the president and CEO of Hillel last summer, attempted to answer in a talk to Hillel leaders at the World Hillel Organization conference in the Simi Valley in December. While the talk itself was off the record, Fingerhut offered some insight into his mindset during a private conversation afterwards.
Fingerhut, 54, comes to the international campus organization after serving most recently as a corporate vice president at Battelle, a Columbus-based independent research and development organization. The Cleveland native was an Ohio congressman in 1993-1994.
As he explained, “I love Judaism in all its forms and expressions. I had an extraordinary Jewish upbringing. Everything in my life has led to this position — my public service, my work on campuses and research centers across Ohio and my lifelong devotion to Israel and the Jewish people.”
Hillel, which boasts a network of 550 branches at colleges, universities and communities in North America, Israel, the former Soviet Union, Europe and Latin America, “is a global organization that holds the future of Judaism in its hands,” Fingerhut said, adding, “In the U.S. alone there are 400,000 Jewish students on campus. About 85 percent of the Jewish college-age population is on campus, so Hillel is an excellent way to reach this demographic.”
Fingerhut looks at the picture painted by the Pew study as an opportunity rather than a challenge. “It’s two sides of the same coin,” he said. “Jewish students are coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds with less deep connections to Jewish life, but they’re proud to be Jewish and curious about Judaism.”
Additionally, according to Fingerhut, the “gulf between the U.S. and Israeli governments has created a space for people who want to support other positions than those traditionally espoused by groups that are chartered to simply be pro-Israeli government, making the debate on Israel more complex in recent years.” While most of the branches of Hillel operate independently, the central Hillel organization, based in Washington, plays a lead role in setting strategy for the movement. It established guidelines in 2010 for partnering with other groups on campus. Recently, those guidelines, which are designed to take a positive stand on Zionism under the Hillel umbrella, were tested.
In December the Hillel at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania declared itself to be an “Open Hillel,” rejecting the guidelines established by Hillel International concerning discussions about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to what turned out to be seven students who drafted the resolution, the guidelines present a “monolithic face pertaining to Zionism” and “stifle healthy debate around Israel.”
Fingerhut responded with an open letter to the chapter leadership, saying, “Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines. Let me be very clear — ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”
He was clear on something else too. “Our job is to develop a love of Israel,” he said. “We partner with all pro-Israel organizations and enable individual campuses to decide when an organization is inappropriate. Just as all Hillels are not alike, not all other organizations are alike.”
What’s the bottom line for Fingerhut? “We want Hillel to be a compelling place for a range of Jewish religious practice. We want to try to be excellent every day on every campus.”
Be a Mensch, Be the Match
Students affiliated with Hillel at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), have found an important way to do a mitzvah and feel great about themselves. They say it’s as simple as brushing your teeth!
The Hillel group has partnered with Be the Match, an organization that is operated by the National Marrow Donor Program® (NMDP) and manages the largest and most diverse marrow registry in the world to save lives of people diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell anemia through bone marrow transplant. Setting up a table on campus, the two groups encourage people 18 to 44 to fill out paperwork and do a quick cheek swab procedure that puts them into the registry.
“You can save a life by taking 5 minutes to do this,” said Yarden Eisenberg, a senior from Los Angeles. “So far, 18 people have registered, and somebody is doing it now.”
Eisenberg explained that UCI Hillel engages in outreach with other Jewish clubs on campus. A fraternity brother from AEPi contacted him, and he got in touch with the Be the Match group on campus. The fraternity brother, who had cancer, met his donor when the two were united on a Rose Parade float.
“When people register and get a cheek swab, their information is placed into a pool of potential bone marrow transplant donors,” explained Claudia Rodriguez, a first year UCI student from Corona and a Be the Match representative on campus. “The national headquarters contacts them when they match someone in need. There are more than 10 million people in the registry, but 67 percent are Caucasian, so it’s hard for others to find a match.”
Sharon Shaoulian, a second year UCI student from Newport Beach and a member of the Hillel board, said, “This is one of the best opportunities for community service that we have. When people see what the impact of it is, they’re willing to help out.”
“Community service shows people a different side of their lives and a different side of themselves,” added Rachel Weiner, a second year student from Manhattan Beach and a participant in Hillel.
“I feel really good about this,” concluded Bradley Erbesfield, assistant director of Hillel of Orange County. “Hillel isn’t just about Shabbat dinners. It’s about taking actions that could save lives.”