New national Hillel CEO talks about the future of engaging Jewish students

Eric Fingerhut, Hillel’s new president and CEO, speaks with students at Washington University during the Hillel conference there this week. 

By David Baugher Special to the Jewish Light

As Eric Fingerhut prepares to assume the reins of Hillel’s Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to oversee operations at 550 campuses worldwide, he is clear about the organization’s mission and goals.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity,” he said. “We have the greatest access to the future of the Jewish people of any organization in the Jewish world because we’re on college campuses.”

Fingerhut, 54, will take on his leadership duties Aug. 19. He succeeds former president Wayne Firestone, who announced his intention to step down from the post last fall after seven years in the job.

Fingerhut brings diverse experience to the position. A Cleveland native, the former politician served in both the Ohio state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat representing his hometown’s eastern suburbs before being defeated in 1994. He would later take on a notable role in higher education being named chancellor of the University of Ohio system. His last three years have been spent as vice-president of education and STEM learning at Battelle, an Ohio-based independent research and development organization.

 “My background is actually pretty eclectic,” said Fingerhut. “I’ve been in public service my whole career both in government directly and in higher education.”

Interviewed last week by the Jewish Light, Fingerhut said his goal is to help young Jews build a lifelong connection to their community, a task he feels is all about people.

“The challenge is to make sure that we have the resources and the talented people in our professional ranks who can deliver that quality programming that’s necessary to meet our obligation to the Jewish future,” he said. “It comes down to, ‘Do we have the right people and the right resources to reach the students on campuses?’”

He said the opportunity to reach students is a precious one which cannot be ignored.

“I always remind myself that we never know where the next great future leader of the Jewish people is going to come from, where our next Hillel directors are, where our next rabbis are, where our next great teachers are, where our next leaders of our non-profit organizations are,” he said. “The future of the Jewish world is on campuses but you can’t say, well, I know it’s on this campus or that campus.”

Fingerhut believes that Millennials are a service-oriented generation with a strong drive and commitment to social action and a passion for making a difference.

“You couple that with the openness of our society, the access to communications, technology and travel that we have to the world, you put those two things together and you have a sense of possibility for the next generation of Jewish leaders to change the world in a way that my generation and those before could never have imagined,” he said.

Fingerhut said Hillel’s role is to provide a nexus where passion, service, Jewish values and a sense of connection meet. That’s not always an easy task especially with a generation that is far more wired and internet-bound than their predecessors.

“There’s a piece that’s the same and a piece that’s different,” he said. “The piece that’s the same is that you always have to be focused on the quality of what we are doing.”

What’s different, he said, is the greater openness and growing globalization of our society.

“Campuses are more global,” he said. “The things that students can choose to do during their college years and in their careers are just endless. They can study anything. They can live anywhere.”

Fingerhut believes that will necessitate a rethinking of how students connect to the community.

“We have to broaden our sense of what it means to build a connection to the Jewish people and the Jewish world because it is such an open society,” he said. “That’s a good thing and it means we have to be with them where they are.”

Still, he said that Hillel’s programming is already robust and there is much that may not need to change.

“We often make the mistake of thinking we always have to have something new instead of continuing to grow that which is working and pare away that which isn’t a high priority,” he said. “I want to make sure we are taking those things that are working really well and giving them the attention, resources and investment that are needed before we ask what new thing we need to do.”