Hillel at 90: The Jewish Campus Umbrella’s Past, Present and Future

When recent rabbinical school graduate Rabbi Benjamin Frankel began a part-time clerical position in 1923 working with students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), little could he have imagined that within less than a century, the small Jewish student program would balloon into a national and international organization with a presence at 550 colleges and universities.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life celebrated its 90th anniversary in November, the organization confirmed.  Under its first full-time national director, Abram L. Sachar, Hillel grew from a primarily religious organization to a center of cultural Jewish learning at a time when Judaism was still viewed with suspicion in academia, and when the existence of Jewish students on American college campuses was relatively new.

“In this dynamic and global environment, our young people will go off and pursue careers and opportunities all over the world, but the one time and place when we have the greatest critical mass of the future of the Jewish people is during the college years,” current Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut, who assumed the position this summer,

Wayne Firestone, Fingerhut’s immediate predecessor and current president of the Genesis Prize Foundation, told that Hillel is a “shining example in American Jewish life on why and how higher education has been good for Jews and why Jews have been good for higher education.”

While continuing to foster a community for American college students, Hillel also involved itself over the years in international causes such as bringing Jewish student refugees to the U.S. on education scholarships, freeing Soviet Jewry for emigration, and growing support for Israel, especially in the wake of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

In the late 1980s, Hillel underwent another transformation under the directorship of Richard M. Joel, who led the effort to “recognize the growth of Jewish life on campus and to greatly expand together with some extraordinary Jewish philanthropists the footprint of Hillel, to build the physical infasctructure of Hillel, and to enable to reach the campuses where a large percentage of our Jewish students are,” Fingerhut said.

Hillel became an independent non-profit organization in 1994 and eventually adopted a “big tent” policy to repesent its philosophy of inclusiveness.  If in the early years Hillel had to find a way to hold minyanim across the Jewish denominations in the same venue respectfully, more recently the organization had to find ways to welcome students from homes with one Jewish parent or Jews who define themselves as part of the LGBTQ community.

In 2002, Hillel partnered with the Jewish Agency for Israel to create its Center for Israel Affairs. Among its Israel-related activities, Hillel organized events, brought experts to speak on campuses, and trained students in Israel advocacy. Hillel also became involved with Taglit-Birthright Israel, bringing more than 10,000 Jewish students to Israel in the first three years of the program alone.

Via the Jewish Agency, Hillel also began to invite young Israelis to spend one or two years working at local campus Hillels in leadership roles. Today, 58 Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel serve 67 North American campuses, according to Hillel.

“It’s really hard for people to embrace governments or ideology, and yet to embrace a specific person who has a real narrative… makes it much more difficult to demonize Israel if you’ve actually met an Israeli and you see them as a human being,” Firestone said.

Few people can attest to the success of the Israel Fellows program more than Erez Cohen, the current director of UIUC’s Illini Hillel, who served as an Israel Fellow at the same campus from 2009-2012.

“What I learned most of all [as an Israel Fellow] is that there isn’t one category of the most successful Jewish student.  We need to to reach a lot of tastes by a lot of people,” Cohen told

Of the 10 students who worked with Cohen directly on events and activities during his first two years as a fellow, today one works at a Hillel and another works for a pro-Israel organization.  Three others have since made aliyah, one works for the Israeli consulate in Chicago, and the rest are also involved in Jewish organizations.

Yet Hillel’s work to connect American Jewish students with Israel has not come without controversy, often relating to the questions surrounding the group’s “big tent” policy.

Hillel’s official guidelines state that the group will not “partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel.”  But a student campaign, Open Hillel, was recently founded by students who feel excluded from Hillel because they believe their critical views about Israel are not accepted.  Open Hillel held its first national campaign meeting in September.

“There’s a difference between a big tent and an open tent,” Firestone said.  “We’ve never claimed that anything goes inside Hillel…  To hold out to any individual student the notion that [he/she] would be welcome is separate from saying what kind of programs could be co-sponsored at Hillel or in collaboration with Hillel.”

Others have raised concerns about the need for Hillel to enforce its official guidelines on Israel amid anti-Israel activity on some campuses.

“Contrary to some reports that anti-Israel activity is all but non-existent, there are real problems on many campuses, with groups and speakers — and sometimes faculty members—spreading falsehoods about Israel,” Aviva Slomich, director of student programming for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, told in July.  “For that reason the role of Hillel leaders in educating and protecting impressionable students is essential.”

Fingerhut said, “There’s no question that Hillel loves Israel, Hillel is a pro-Israel organization, Hillel is about building Jewish identity… and at the core of Jewish identity is that Israel is the home of the Jewish people.”

Apathy about Israel and Jewishness in general is another issue that many campus Hillels encounter, said Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation since 1992.  Nevertheless, she said after graduation many students who had participated in Hillel, especially those who went on a Birthright trip with Hillel, continue to engage with their Jewish communities.

“I hear back from alumni and am just blown away with what they’re doing,” Blumenberg told

The key to Hillel’s success has been changing its roster of options as the students change, Blumenberg said. Since 2008, students have been heavily focusing on professional opportunities and academics in an effort to secure jobs despite the recession. The Arizona Hillel has been particularly focused on helping students build their resumes and find internships, and making them feel confident of finding post-graduation employment.

UIUC’s Illini Hillel also started Hire U, a student initiative dedicated to providing professional development to college students from a Jewish perspective.  On October 10, the program brought Phyllis Tabachnick, managing director at J.P. Morgan and co-chair of The Hillels of Illinois, to speak about the long-term benefits of her involvement in the Jewish community and in business.

The Hire U event was also attended by Fingerhut, who at a later reception for the Jewish community of Champaign, Illinois, presented Cohen with a plaque celebrating Illini Hillel’s 90th anniversary.

“I think that the fact that Hillel was born at [UIUC] is not accidental. I think that our campus has been over many years pioneering in a lot of things.  That hasn’t changed. When the Israel Fellows project started, our Hillel was one of the first to get a fellow,” Cohen said.

Though it may have begun as a small organization at the UIUC campus 90 years ago, Hillel has also branched out to more than 55 international centers in Israel, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Russia, and Former Soviet Union (FSU) nations. In 1994, Hillel opened its first branch in Moscow with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Schusterman Foundation.  There are currently 18 Hillels in Russia and the broader FSU region.

Universities in the FSU aren’t based around campuses, so Hillel branches in the region are more central and community based, said Yasha Moz, associate director of Hillel’s international operations.

“It’s a little like a JCC for students,” Moz told

More than 14,000 people are now registered in the FSU Hillel database.  Hillels in the region sent 1,000 students on Birthright trips this year, a number that has doubled since 2010, Moz said.

Firestone is hopeful that Hillel’s global presence “will be better known and more embraced,” but Hillel “will need to continue to innovate in order to be relevant, to understand and to be an authentic dialogue with the young adults that are on campus today,” he said.

Fingerhut wants Hillel to be as proactive and creative as possible “to make sure our programs are in fact linking this generation of Jewish students to Jewish life, learning, [and] Israel.”

“We’re up to the challenge,” he said.

Jewish National Fund Announces $121 Million Annual 2013 Campaign — Largest Gift in Organization’s History Leads the Way

With the close of its campaign year, Jewish National Fund just announced that its annual 2013 campaign topped $121 million, the largest campaign in its history.  In addition to a strong annual campaign, JNF is the recipient of an estate gift of more than $60 million from the estate of John Boruchin, perhaps the most significant gift in the 112-year history of the organization.

The announcements catapult JNF forward after 10 years of remarkable campaign achievements  and tangible accomplishments in Israel that include adding 12% to Israel’s water economy, broadening the organization’s donor database to more than two million households, and developing the Negev Desert through Blueprint Negev for the next generation of Israel’s residents to call home. With the opening of the country’s largest amphitheater, an award-winning Pipes Bridge, the heritage site of Abraham’s Well and the Be’er Sheva River Walk, JNF has transformed the desert city of Be’er Sheva from a dusty backwater into the true capital of the Negev.  The Central Arava will soon be home to a state-of-the-art medical center, and JNF’s Housing Development Fund is facilitating the movement of population to the Negev, an imperative for Israel’s secure and lasting future.  All this and more helps JNF chart its road map for the future, delivering bold and transformative solutions that work to secure a prosperous future for the land and people of Israel.

“John Boruchin had a long-time commitment to JNF — from childhood till death,” said JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson.  “Over the years he funded water and Zionist education initiatives and our Blueprint Negev campaign.  A self-made millionaire, he was impressed with JNF’s business model of innovation, vision and ingenuity.  He saw us as we are — an organization of social entrepreneurs utilizing cutting-edge best practices to operate like a 21st Century business.  He challenged us to get others to follow his lead. Fifteen years ago he and his wife sat with Matt Bernstein, our chief planned giving officer, and said they wanted to take on bold initiatives that would connect children to Zionism and make Israel strong.  They wanted to do it with JNF as they knew we would properly manage their money and their wishes.  And so with this trust JNF will be establishing the JNF Center for Zionist Education and Advocacy in John’s name from which all our programs promoting Zionist education and advocacy will stem.”

The trust is not yet liquid; a blue ribbon committee of lay leaders under JNF president Jeffrey E. Levine, JNF audit co-chair David Greenbaum and Joseph Korn, JNF assistant vice president of investments, will be mobilized to structure the trust’s use and monitor its investments to achieve the donor’s wishes.

“John’s love of Jabotinsky and the State of Israel was foremost in his mind throughout his life,” said Jeffrey E. Levine, JNF president.  “He believed with all his heart that he had to do everything to keep the land of Israel as the Jewish homeland.  This trust is his lasting legacy and will help transform thousands of Jewish youth giving them a lasting connection to the land and people of Israel.”

John was born in Poland and met his wife, Dora, in Russia after the war.  Both their families had been wiped out.  The two came to the States and he slowly made his fortune in real estate, almost one acre at a time.  Eventually he became one of the largest tract home builders in the California but lived in the original home he built until the day he died.  Though he and his wife hardly ever got to Israel, he wished to be buried there and his close friend and JNF executive Hermine Mahmouzian flew with his body, attended the funeral, and spoke about his love for Israel.

“John was hoping to set a trend with this trust,” said Matt Bernstein, JNF’s chief planned giving officer.  “He really and truly loved Israel and hoped other will follow his lead and leave a lasting legacy through JNF.”

“This gift dovetails perfectly with our timeline and focus,” said Robinson.  “As Israel and the American Jewish community face serious challenges in the decade ahead, we believe the spirit that has sustained JNF for the past 112 years is needed now more than ever.  We are driven by a deep sense of purpose and responsibility at JNF and so we are undertaking an unprecedented $1 billion campaign over the next decade.  We have already achieved so much: built 240 reservoirs, planted 250 million trees, built thousands of parks and recreations areas, preserved history with renovated Israel independence historical sites, refitted and modernized hundreds firefighting units, and so much more.  But there is more to do. The campaign – which takes us forward through Israel’s 75th jubilee – matches an ambitious financial target with a comprehensive strategic vision.  JNF will connect American Jews to the people of Israel as never before and implement unique projects to strengthen Israel for the long-term.

Robinson concluded, “Through our work we will create transformative change on the ground and in our communities – both in Israel and here in America – keep John’s name alive forever, keep our donors’ trust, and keep Israel strong.”

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