Eric Fingerhut has served as president and CEO of Hillel International since 2013. His latest role follows a career that has included stints as an Ohio congressman and an Ohio state senator who worked on higher education, human services and economic development initiatives, as well as the Democratic Party’s candidate in Ohio for U.S. Senate in 2004, chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, and corporate vice-president of education and STEM learning business at Battelle, a research and development organization.
Fingerhut spoke to The CJN during his two-day trip to Toronto last month about how Hillel works to give Jewish student leaders the tools necessarily to respond to increased anti-Israel hostility on campus.
What was the purpose of your trip to Toronto and with whom did you meet?
Hillel has been working on the campuses in Ontario for a long time, but over the last year, we have reorganized and launched a new umbrella organization called Hillel Ontario, which is the organization responsible now for running all of the Hillels at all the university and college campuses in Ontario. That organization just completed a new strategic plan on how it can raise the quality of our work with Jewish students and strengthen Jewish communities on those campuses and I was really excited to be able to part of a program with Marc Newburgh, who is my colleague as the head of Hillel Ontario, and Micki Mizrahi who is the chair of the board.
I worked on a panel together with Adam Minsky, the head of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, and Marc and Shimon Fogel, the head of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), and we talked about how closely we’re all partnering together to really create a dynamic future for Jewish life on campus in Ontario.
There have been countless reports in the news of Jewish and pro-Israel voices being stifled on campus, and in some cases, students are being physically harassed and verbally intimidated by anti-Israel groups. What are the challenges that Jews entering college and university face today that might be different from the challenges they faced 15 years ago?
I think there is no question that we have a disturbing surge of anti-Semitic incidents, aggressive actions that have been troubling and worrisome for the Jewish community on campus, and even, as you suggested, in some cases, there has been physical and verbal harassment.
Hillel together with our partners at federation and CIJA are completely committed to addressing those issues on behalf of Jewish students. The entire university community is entitled to a university campus climate that is one of respect and inclusion and welcomeness for all. Hillel has been in this business for 93 years. We will certainly be active and aggressive together with our community partners to tackle this issue, but the most important thing we can do as a community is to make sure that we have good, strong, welcoming, active Jewish communities on campus that Jewish students feel welcome in and supported in and safe in.
So we build Jewish communities around the clock, around the year, 24/7, so that Jewish students can grow and thrive, and yes, feel that the community can be there to respond to a crisis. But you can’t just snap your fingers and respond to a crisis when something happens if you haven’t already built a strong community. If we want to be able to respond effectively to protect our students, we need to first build that community. We hope we won’t need to address those incidents, but we’ll certainly be prepared to do so and work to prevent them in the first place from happening.
Has Hillel had to change the way it operates because of the popularity of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and how aggressive anti-Israel groups have become? Does the traditional approach Hillel employed in the past still resonate with Jewish students and address the rise of the BDS movement?
Hillel’s strategies have changed over the years, but not because of the BDS movement. In fact, Hillel has undergone a significant resurgence as a result of a comprehensive initiative that is about student engagement and a relationship-based engagement at its core. We just celebrated the 10th anniversary of a new movement-wide strategy of student peer-to-peer engagement under the direction of experienced and trained Jewish educators and professionals. At Hillel Ontario, that is the model that they use, which is to encourage our student leaders, to train them to go out and build the communities out of their own outreach initiatives and to continue to do so under the guidance of trained, experienced, pluralistic, welcoming and inclusive Jewish educators. Hillel has been growing.
We have a strategy called Drive to Excellence, which is to implement these new and exciting best practices across the entire Hillel movement.
It’s because of those modern, relationship-engagement strategies that we are confident we can build those strong communities. Then we can be mobilized to respond to the BDS challenge. There is no question that we have to adopt a certain, specific strategy to respond to this specific challenge of BDS. We’ve had to learn how to do that and we’ve added that to our portfolio of professional and student responses, but it’s in addition to what’s really a complete transformation of Hillel’s approach to relationship-based engagement, which has been so exciting and will be of benefit in Ontario.
The biggest news story of the day is that Donald Trump was elected president. It seems 18 to 25 year olds mostly voted against him. Do you think his election will affect the campus climate?
First of all, it certainly was interesting to be from the United States visiting Canada, I can tell you that. [He laughs.] I had many, many interesting conversations this week.
I think the reality is that an overwhelming tradition – at least over the last several presidential elections in the United States – the younger voters, which includes college students, voted overwhelmingly Democratic. It was certainly true in the election of President Barack Obama, it was even true with the election of President George W. Bush, and certainly before that. It is not a new development, and sometimes those votes are on the winning side, and sometimes they are on the losing side. I don’t anticipate anything other than looking forward to talking with, and working with our students on campus and the communities on campus to help them process through the fact that the majority of the votes they cast were not successful. How do they now work constructively as citizens, as student leaders, as Jewish leaders in the great free democracy that is the United States, and agreeing when they agree to support the president, and disagree when they disagree with the president?
College is a time of developing your own leadership skills, and a very important part of what the world does is help students learn to exercise those kinds of leadership skills. It’s a new chapter, an interesting chapter, and there has been a long history of Jewish student activism and involvement in America’s great democratic story. Obviously Jews are very active in American politics. You probably know I’m a former American congressman, and there are many Jews who serve in public office and are involved in campaigns, and I’m sure there will be many in the government that the president-elect will put together, so it will be an interesting time, but, as I said, another chapter in this exciting saga of American democracy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.