By Sam Litvin
He sat with a phone against his ear in the dim hallway of the Fairmont of Grand Del Mar. We nearly passed him but I recognized the silver haired man with a grey kippah from my research. Minutes later, the ex-congressman, Stanford Law graduate and the current CEO of Hillel International entered the large oak-paneled dining room. “Hi, how are you,” Eric Fingerhut said, full of energy as he shook my hand with a smile. He excused our surroundings, explaining that he heard that this is the “Versaille of San Diego and so I had to stay here.” I looked out the window onto the lawn below where fountains crisscrossed and bushes artfully manicured into intersecting diamonds. It was no Versaille, but it certainly tried and was in stark contrast to my usual perception of Hillel.
As Fingerhut sat down next to me, the cuffs of his blue blazer pulled up exposing a bracelet that could have been on a 20-year-old traveler at a hostel in Costa Rica. Over the next few hours, we spoke about all things Hillel.
Hillel was one of the first American Jewish student organizations, founded in 1923 to engage students in American Universities. Over the years, Hillel expanded, operating chapters in over 550 institutions inside 18 countries. However, one thing hasn’t changed: Hillel continues to challenge itself to reach all Jewish students.
This challenge is ever present because contemporary Hillel grapples with the same issues all contemporary Jews grapple: What is a Jew? Whom do we welcome? (As if there is a singular Jew with a singular viewpoint.)
“We are the home for all Jews of all backgrounds,” Fingerhut says. Since 2013, he has navigated Hillel while calling upon his experience as an ex-congressman and an former Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents. He grew up in one of the most Jewish areas of the country, Cleveland, Ohio. He attended synagogue services and was part of Hillel during his time as an undergraduate student at Northwestern and Stanford, where he studied law. He was on the board of his synagogue and active in the Jewish community after graduating and represented the concentrated Jewish community of Cleveland in Congress.
Fingerhut entered Hillel with zest and a desire to do “holy work.” It is why he says he now dons the kippah, which he never wore in Congress, “to remind me that I’m working on behalf of the Jewish people, not on my behalf.” He wants peace in Israel and he says Hillel “doesn’t have a singular point of view about what policies Israel should take,” and he wants peace between Jews. He wants everyone to feel accepted and leads Hillel in creating programs to build a more vibrant Jewish community. In fact, community is his approach to most issues facing Hillel, such as the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement; and views on Israel.
“We hope we’re building a model of understanding and civility that is so desperately needed,” he says. He may not be wrong. After all, it is only through mutual understanding and shared bonds and values, that we have become a Jewish people. From Fingerhut’s perspective, “There is no Jewish people without a sense of a Jewish homeland,” so, it is in this difficult climate that Fingerhut is trying to drive a message of cohesion and dialogue home.
During Fingerhut’s days in Northwestern and Stanford, Hillel was a different institution, made up of a loose organization of small clubs. Since then, the organization has grown in scope and power, primarily thanks to the generosity of the Schusterman Foundation. (The Schusterman Hillel International Center has an annual budget that is a quarter of the entire Hillel organization.)
An influx of donations to Hillel in the late ’90s allowed for added resources for students, making Hillel the largest organizer of Birthright trips and pro-Israel events and speakers on college campuses. With a current yearly budget of $35 Million, (Hillel Worldwide is $126 Million), Hillel faces the challenges of BDS, the disagreements with Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street U about how to discuss the conflict in Israel and the contentious and divisive red and blue states, cities and families. This diversity of opinion is a minefield for a man who so desperately wants everyone to get along. Fingerhut explains that of course they invite pro-Palestinian speakers, as long as they are “representing the situation in a fair [..] manner.” Similarly, he supports the work of J Street U on the anti-BDS front, but he recently cancelled a planned speech at their conference when they invited Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator who compared Israel to ISIS.
In the time we spoke, Fingerhut was able to masterfully speak his talking points as if still in Congress, and I learned much about his love for Israel and for the Jewish people. He quoted Hillel and the Talmud; and put me at ease. It was clear that he is a man who does love all Jewish people, who cares for all Jewish students and who truly wants the best for his organization.