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Interview With Eric Fingerhut (Full Text)

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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 kippa from the pictures of my research. Minutes later, the ex-congressman, Stanford Law graduate and the current CEO of Hillel entered the large oak-paneled dining room where I set up my recorder. The room had a long bar, floor to ceiling windows, stone carved fireplace, paintings worthy of museum walls, and cloth covered chairs transporting me far from San Diego. “Hi, how are you,” said Fingerhut full of energy as he shook my hand with a smile. He excused our surroundings, explaining that he heard that this is the “Versailles 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 Versailles, 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. Without much chit-chat, I launched into my four pages of questions, crafted at two am after hours of reading recent news articles.

Hillel the Elder lived in Babylon 2200 years ago, he is believed to be the original Jewish scholar, possibly the author of the Talmud and the Mishnah. Hillel created Jewish scholarship that lead the world scholars to revere Jewish thought on matters of Talmud and Torah as more than just religious musings. What he is more widely known for however is his views on acceptance of strangers and emphasis of good deeds. Similarly, the organization named in his honor 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 in reaching all Jewish students.

This challenge is ever present because contemporary Hillel grapples with the same issues all contemporary Jews grapple: what is a Jew? Who do we accept? Who do we welcome? As if there is a singular Jew with a singular viewpoint. Fingerhut explained that “we are the home for all Jews of all backgrounds”. However, because people can be contentious, passionate and love prone to disagreements, means some students criticise or agree with criticism of Israel to the displeasure of donors of Hillel. Since 2013, Fingerhut has been the man to navigate Hillel with the experience of an ex-congressman and an ex-Chancellor of Ohio Board of Regents. Fingerhut’s unique credentials make him the perfect man for the job, and yet, because of the disagreements within the Jewish community, his tenure is not without conflict.

Fingerhut grew up in one of the most Jewish areas of the country, Cleveland Ohio. He attended services and was part of Hillel during his time as an undergraduate at Northwestern and Stanford where he studied law. He was on the board of his synagogue and active in the Jewish community after coming back from California and represented the concentrated Jewish community of Cleveland in Congress. Fingerhut feels at home with the wealthy and the poor, with the hippy liberals and the conservative orthodox. His ability to agree and see their perspective makes him effective but also makes this job more difficult. To try to be liked by everyone, to understand everyone, to have a desire to satisfy everyone assures that one is also disliked and criticized on a national and international stage.

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 which 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 community. In fact, community is his approach to most issues facing Hillel such as BDS and views on Israel: “we hope we’re building a model of understanding and civility that is so desperately needed”. He may not be wrong, after all, it is only through mutual understanding and shared bonds and values, missions and goals are we greater than individual Jews and 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 during a time of ever rising division. A division which is within Hillel as much as any other place in our society.

During Fingerhut’s days in Northwestern and Stanford, Hillel was a different institution. Jewish people were not different from today: some rich-some poor, some liberal-some conservative. What was different was that Hillel was a loose organization of small clubs. Even in my days at UC San Diego, Hillel was a small organization on campus with Rabbi Lisa chaperoning Birthright Israel trips. I, like most Jews on campus, rarely attended Hillel’s events (aside from the annual Schmooze with the Jews; when UCSD Students of all backgrounds lined up in a long serpentine to get free hot dogs). Since then the organization grew in scope and power, primarily thanks to the Schusterman Foundation which created the strong central Schusterman Hillel International Center with an annual budget that is a quarter of the entire Hillel organization. That growth came mostly through the increased donations as wealthy people started to see Hillel as a possible path to combat the perceived threat of intermarriage, BDS and young Jewish loss of interest in Israel compounded with the uptick of American Jewish criticism of Israeli occupation of ex-Jordanian territory.

This large influx of donations began in 1998 from people with their own  ideas, agendas and ideologies of what their money should fund. This new funding source gave added resources to help students, making Hillel the largest organizer of Birthright trip and pro-Israel events and speakers on college campuses, thus changing the organization from an American Jewish Student organization into an American Israel advocacy organization. This is what creates a dilemma for a leader of an organization where most of the members are students who are mostly in the 70% camp of Jews who vote liberal and Democrat. At the same time there are some people who help fund Hillel who fear the immigrants and agree with the immigration ban which Fingerhut in contrast explains “the executive order has directly affected campuses. There are students on campus who have not been able to return to campus, students who aren’t able to travel home” and says that we need to take a stand against injustice on behalf of all people, especially during the time of Passover when we are reminded that “we are strangers in a strange land.”

With a yearly budget of $35 Million USD (Hillel Worldwide is $126 Million), Fingerhut must stand for the ideals he earnestly believes and yet he cannot afford to falter and lose the funding which supports their student leadership programs, the Birthright trips, anti-BDS work and the over 300 personnel who rely on the donations and support. Today, Hillel faces the challenges of BDS, the disagreements with Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street U about how to discuss the constant 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” from Hillel’s Zionist point of view.. Similarly, he supports the work of J Street U on anti-BDS but Fingerhut recently cancelled a planned speech at their conference when they invited Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator who compared Israel to ISIS. This act galvanized the donors who defended his choice as an act of bravery while enraged a several campuses enough to leave Hillel and start their own offshoot Open Hillel organization.

In the 46 minutes we spoke, Fingerhut was able to masterfully speak his talking points as if still in Congress, repeating many statements which were quoted in many other publications. I learned much about his love for Israel and for the Jewish people. He quoted Hillel and the Talmud; a single mention of a school in his ex-congressional district evoked a 10 minute heart filled answer, making getting answers to my long list of questions impossible. I did get to know the man a little, he seemed kind and friendly, putting 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 Jews and for Hillel. Unfortunately, for him, that is not what all students or all donors want, and so his tenure, already marked by some disappointment, is unlikely to get easier.

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