Fingerhut on Hillel

Fingerhut on Hillel

College organization’s president to speak in Closter

Eric Fingerhut, Hillel’s president, relaxes. (Hillel International)
Eric Fingerhut, Hillel’s president, relaxes. (Hillel International)


Parents always worry when their children go off to college.

Who will they meet? Will they eat right? Will they sleep right? Will they work? Will they play too hard? Or not at all? Will they drift away? Will they stay in some other part of the country? Will they call?

Will they be okay?

And of course Jewish parents have a whole other set of worries. Will my kid meet other Jews? Date other Jews? Marry a Jew? Have Jewish kids?

Most likely, each generation of parents has had its own specific issues. This generation of Jewish parents has to worry about what seems to be an upsurge of anti-Zionist feeling on some campuses, and what seems to turn into anti-Semitism on a few of them.

There also are quite a few organizations that help Jewish students stay connected to the Jewish community, and to counter the hostility that some might meet and more might fear meeting. Chief among those organizations, of course, is Hillel International, the organization that offers a home to Jewish students on more than 550 campuses around the world.

Eric Fingerhut, Hillel’s president, joined the organization in 2013; before that, he’d gotten an inside view of university life as chancellor of the Ohio board of regents, and he’d seen governance up close during a term as a Democratic member of Congress from Ohio. Now, with those and a wide range of other experiences that combine in a wide-ranging background, he’s running Hillel.

On the Shabbat that begins on Friday, September 9, he’ll talk about Hillel and Jewish life on campus at Temple Emanu-El of Closter. (See box.)

“One of the things I love about Hillel is that we get it all,” Mr. Fingerhut said. All? What’s that? “We embrace all forms of Jewish practice,” he said. “I can go from a Reform minyan with a guitar to a Conservative minyan led by a woman to a traditional mechitzah minyan, and then we all get together and have dinner together.

“That’s what’s so powerful about Hillel. It allows us to connect to all forms of Jewish life, and to build up one unified community.

“Hillel’s vision and responsibility is to inspire every Jewish student to build an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning, and Israel,” he continued.

To be realistic, how do you do that? “We take seriously the mission and responsibility to reach every Jewish student on campus today,” he said. “They are coming from a very diverse set of backgrounds. We have many students from families that are very involved in the Jewish community and others that come from families that have no personal involvement in the community. We have students from multifaith families, students of color, students with disabilities. Hillel’s work is to engage everyone, and to build a unified Jewish community on campus, through some of the most sophisticated peer-to-peer engagement strategies that exist anywhere in the Jewish world.”

He’s talking about a model that has professionals working with student leaders, who “reach out to their fellow students.” It’s wide-ranging work, and it gives the student leaders the chance to tailor their approaches, learning how to listen, how to intuit, and how to bend without breaking. “It’s an approach that forms the strongest commitments, and it also builds student leadership,” Mr. Fingerhut said.

There are about 400,000 Jewish undergraduates in North America, Mr. Fingerhut estimated, and about 100,000 to 150,000 graduate students; about 85 percent of them are clustered in no more than 250 campuses on the continent, and the other 15 percent is scattered everywhere else.

Despite what we hear about the hostile environment Jewish students face on campus, every campus is different, Mr. Fingerhut said. “There certainly are some schools where students are going to experience and encounter it” — “it” being anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism or both — “in a much more forceful way, although there are many schools where they will not encounter it, or they will just in a minor way.

“It is a very diverse ecosystem, ranging from large public universities to small colleges. But it is certainly a serious issue. College campuses are a focus of the global BDS movement, which has organized and created strategies that affect student life on campus.” (BDS is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that hopes, so far unsuccessfully, to create economic havoc in Israel by delegitimizing and stigmatizing its products.)

How does Hillel help students? “I say two things to parents,” Mr. Fingerhut said. “It is important to be part of the community. A community can’t come together just to respond to a challenge.

“UJA Federation of New York said that ‘We were there on 9/11 because we were there on 9/10.’ We urge students and parents to be involved in the Jewish community on campus, even if they are so engaged in Jewish life anyway that they don’t need identity building. We need them to be part of the community.

“Judaism operates as a community. We don’t live on mountaintops, or at Walden Pond. You have to be part of the community.”

That was point one. Mr. Fingerhut’s second point is that “you have to be knowledgeable about the issues. We know that every student is different. We don’t expect them all to be on the front lines of this or any other issue, but we do hope that each student will take the opportunity to become knowledgeable about Israel or the Jewish people. That way, when they become involved in a discussion in a class or in the dorm or at a party, they can respond effectively.

“We want them to go on Birthright. We are big promoters of Onward Israel and Masa. We want them to learn as much as they can, to engage as much as they can, so when the issues arrive, they can respond effectively.” (Birthright Israel takes Jews between 18 and 26 years old to Israel on a free 10-day trip. Onward Israel is the next step, a six- to ten-week immersive program in Israel; it is not free but is heavily subsidized. Masa comes next; it offers five- to 12-month internships, volunteer opportunities, and other programs in Israel. Hillel works closely with all these organizations, and others as well.)

Some schools’ environments are particularly hostile, Mr. Fingerhut said. Take, for example, Vassar College, a liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., one of the Seven Sisters. (Full disclosure — it’s my alma mater, so I am particularly aware of — and horrified by — the situation there.)

“Vassar is an example of a school where the anti-Israel environment became pervasive throughout many of the academic departments, and truly pervasive,” Mr. Fingerhut said. (He did not have enough time and I do not have enough space to address why that anti-Israel feeling should infect academics, but it does. That’s a given.) “It was truly unbalanced, and that created a fertile environment for anti-Israel students.”

Vassar’s administration was “slow to realize the extent of the problem,” he said. And different kinds of schools pose different kinds of problems. “This obviously would not be so terrifying if it was one school in a university of 50,000 people, but it’s a small school” — it enrolls fewer than 2,500 students — “and anti-Israel sentiment tends to be more concentrated in the humanities and social sciences. It has created an environment where one side of the issue has not been represented among the faculty or in the conversation on campus.”

But it’s not all grim. “We have a cooperative working relationship,” he said. “At a place like that, Hillel plays an exceedingly important role. We know that we have to be prepared and agile.

“There are many important concerted efforts that Hillel is engaged with, both alone and with partners, to make changes at the school,” he continued. “We work closely with those partners. And we’ve brought speakers like Ari Shavit,” the Israeli journalist whose book, “My Promised Land,” is a highly respected look at all sides of the political situation in Israel “to campus.” It’s made a difference, he said. (In fact, he added, Mr. Shavit has spoken on more than 40 campuses.)

BDS is losing ground overall, Mr. Fingerhut said. “It’s morphed a little bit, because the pro-Israel community — remember that we have allies, and the pro-Israel community is not all Jewish — has become more organized.”

Among other responses, “the Jewish community has increased resources and programming available on campus for Jewish and non-Jewish students who want to learn about Israel.”

That has not pleased the community’s opponents.

“In response, there is a growing frustration among the BDS forces, because they’re not gaining traction, so the result is that there are fewer BDS campaigns but a growth of disruptive behavior on the part of BDS advocates,” Mr. Fingerhut continued. “This is in many ways more disconcerting that just a campus political debate, because you are talking about physical intimidation, about breaking student codes of conduct, and of course about safety. So this is an occasion for us to engage with the university” on issues of safety and the question of what is acceptable behavior and what is out of bounds.

The good news, he said, is that “there is a huge increase of pro-Israel activity on campus. We have more than doubled the number of pro-Israel events, and there has been a five-time increase in student participation in those events. Our Birthright recruiting numbers are up.”

Hillel also works with many other organizations, including the David Project and StandWithUs, and it has a relationship with the Jewish Agency, which has begun sending representatives — Israel Fellows, or sclichim— to more than 70 campuses. It works with an alphabet soup of other Jewish organizations, including the ADL (the Anti-Defamation League, of course) and the ICC (Israel on Campus). It’s also worked with J Street on some issues, although that relationship is fraught with tension, given that J Street’s overly political in ways that Hillel is not, and given that the direction of its politics does not always jive with those of many other pro-Israel activists. Still, the relationship exists. “When we can, we work together,” Mr. Fingerhut said.

So, the problems facing Jewish students on campus are real, and they are new to this generation of students, but, Mr. Fingerhut said, they are far from insurmountable, and Hillel is there to help not only with those issues but the perennial ones. He’s glad to talk about all of it.

Who: Eric Fingerhut, president of Hillel International

What: Will be scholar in residence

Where: At Temple Emanu-El of Closter, 180 Piermont Road

When: On Shabbat, September 9-10; he’s speaking at Shabbat services, which begin at 9, and again informally at kiddush.

Why: To examine how to be Jewish and proud on campus.

For information: Go to or call (201) 750-9997


read more: