Reaching outside the organized Jewish community, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life has chosen Eric Fingerhut, 54, a former Ohio congressman long active in higher education, to succeed Wayne Firestone as president and CEO of the organization.
In an interview on Monday, the day after his appointment was announced, Fingerhut emphasized the importance of Hillel adjusting to “a globally connected world where the choices for young people today are limitless in terms of where and how they’ll live.”
The challenge and opportunity, he told The Jewish Week, is for Hillel to “help them find their way and build their Jewish life into whatever career path they follow.”
Hillel leaders are enthusiastic about their choice because Fingerhut is not only a person of achievement but is known for his interpersonal and fundraising skills, particularly important at a time when the organization continues to be deficit financed.
“Everything in my life has led to this moment — my public service, my work on campuses and research centers across Ohio, and my life-long devotion to Israel and the Jewish people,” Fingerhut said in a statement. “And so I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
He has served as the president of his Conservative congregation and noted that he has a sister who is Reform and a sister who is Orthodox, “so I know about Jewish diversity,” he said in the interview.
In the public sphere, he noted that his years in politics have taught him how to “get up and lay out a vision and get people to follow, and to generate resources to support our programs.” It also gave him experience in coalition building and working with other communities and religions, he said.
Sidney Pertnoy, chairman of Hillel’s board of directors, described Fingerhut as “an ideal fit for Hillel at this important time in our history,” asserting that the new executive has “a passion for Hillel’s mission and a proven innovative record of successes in both the public and private arena.”
After one term as a Democratic congressman (1993-1994) and an unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat, Fingerhut served as a state senator in Ohio before becoming chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents from early 2007 to 2011. He won wide praise for leading the state’s system of public universities and colleges.
Most recently he was corporate vice president of education and STEM Learning at Battelle, the world’s largest independent research and development organization, based in Columbus, Ohio.
In the interview on Monday, Fingerhut noted that while he is not “a Hillel insider,” he now has “the chance to build a new relationship from scratch, a time to turn a page and start fresh.”
One of the contentious issues Hillel has grappled with in recent years, in addition to its economic problems, is how to uphold both its mission to “help build love and support for Israel,” in Fingerhut’s words, and its commitment to diversity and openness. That often plays out with debates over which groups or individuals are in “the big pro-Israel tent” and which aren’t, sometimes focusing on supporters of J Street or the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel).
Fingerhut, new on the job, avoided being drawn into the specifics, asserting that “we are a complicated people” facing “challenging issues.” He said Hillel needs to be “engaged in more of these discussions,” wherever they take place on campus, whether it’s a Hillel-sponsored program or in dorm rooms or student unions.
With the real-life Hillel as a role model, said to be the most inclusive of rabbinic sages in the Talmud, Fingerhut said while there have always been debates about theology and the specific application of Jewish laws, Jews are “best known for bringing together the concepts of Ahavas Yisrael [love of Israel] and Am Echad [one people]. That’s how I approach issues of diversity in Jewish life, and issues about Israel. We want to help students who are searching on campus and want to explore their Jewish roots.”
He said that in the interview process for his new post he was particularly impressed with the support of staff and board members who have “a real sense of optimism, even knowing that things have to be fixed. I feel fortunate to be working with people who really want us to succeed.”
Surely one of his first steps will be to get to know and build relationships with key personnel throughout the Hillel network, and to secure the kind of major donors that can help the organization gain more solid footing as it continues its work on more than 550 campuses here and around the world.