Eric Fingerhut arrived at the Stanford University campus late on a Friday afternoon, having driven some 2,500 miles in a beat-up old Pontiac LeMans from his Cleveland Heights, Ohio, hometown. He found his law school dorm room, showered, changed and went for a walk. As he explored the campus he heard singing that he soon recognized as a Kabbalat Shabbat service.
“I followed the singing and that’s how I got to Hillel,” says Fingerhut, where he found a room full of students, faculty and staff and the “most joyful Kabbalat Shabbat.”
Thirty-two years later, Fingerhut is the newly appointed president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Life. He replaces Wayne Firestone who stepped down in June, having announced his resignation last fall. Fingerhut brings to his new position, which formally begins Aug. 19, experience in government and education, most recently as vice president of education and STEM Learning (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at Battelle, a nonprofit research institute in Columbus, Ohio. He previously had been chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, a Democratic member of Congress and a state senator.
Beyond that, Fingerhut, 54, says he brings to the job a “neshama,” Jewish soul, that has driven his public service.
‘I spent my life as a public servant and for me, my commitment to public service always came from my Jewish upbringing, my Jewish community, my neshama, my Jewish soul’
“I spent my life as a public servant and for me, my commitment to public service always came from my Jewish upbringing, my Jewish community, my neshama, my Jewish soul,” says Fingerhut, who was active in United Synagogue Youth and is a past president of the Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim in Columbus. “I grew up in a wonderful Jewish home, in a terrific Jewish community in Cleveland, where I was blessed with great teachers and wonderful role models. I understand who I am is because of the teachers and role models that I grew up with. When I think about who I am, I think about the teachers I had.”
He says it is an “extraordinary privilege and opportunity to perform the public service drive by my Jewish neshama on behalf of the Jewish people.”
Hillel has 550 chapters, not just in North America, where there are 400,000 Jewish students on campuses, but also in Israel, Latin America, Europe and the Soviet Union. At many campuses only a minority of Jewish students participate actively in Hillel.
Although he enjoyed Hillel as a law student at Stanford, Fingerhut’s undergraduate days at Northwestern University outside Chicago saw him as a “classic kid” who went just during holidays. “I wasn’t deeply engaged,” he says of his student days, “and I don’t recall the engagement and excitement that Hillel is instituting all over the country.”
He believes, though, that it is possible to reach every Jewish student, regardless of where they are on the religious spectrum or Israel’s political spectrum. “Yes, we can reach everyone,” he says.
The guiding perspective, he says, is that “we love Judaism, we love the Jewish people and we love Israel.”
Beyond that, he says, is plenty of room for varied viewpoints and discussions. He points to the sage Hillel, for whom the organization is named, and his many arguments with Shammai — the “Lincoln-Douglas debates of the Talmud,” as Fingerhut puts it.
Fingerhut joins Hillel at a time when Jewish nonprofits are having a difficult time fundraising and when some campus Hillel directors believe they do not get enough financial support from the international center.
“‘The rubber hits to road’ on the local campus because that is where the students are,” Rabbi Kenneth Cohen, a former Hillel director at American University in Washington, DC, says in an email. “The entire Hillel infrastructure exists to support that goal alone. There is always the concern that the International Center might become top heavy.”
Fingerhut understands the tension that sometimes exists between campus chapters that think too much of the funding stays in Washington and international center leaders who view the Hillel system as a whole. He says he experienced the same thing as chancellor in Ohio, overseeing the state’s public universities and colleges, which serve more than 600,000 students.
“Each university was sort of jostling against each other for the resources they need,” he says, with his job to show there’s strength in working together. It’s a false dichotomy, he says, for funders to think they should support either the local campus Hillel or the international center.
It’s a false dichotomy, he says, for funders to think they should support either the local campus Hillel or the international center
The international center is providing resources that are improving the chapter experience, he says. He points specifically to technology with “databases tracking alumni and following our alumni as they move around the world that are pretty expensive and we can do that collectively in many cases.”
Paula Tucker, the Hillel director at Gallaudet University, which is geared toward deaf and hard of hearing students, is excited by Fingerhut’s appointment. Not only does she hope to continue the “warm and collaborative relationship we have had” with the international staff, but she also calls him a “mensch.”
She remembers him from Cleveland Heights High School where they both were choir members. “Eric was very musically talented, and performed in several of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas,” Tucker says.
But, don’t expect Fingerhut to get on stage with any of Hillel’s a cappella groups.
“I am the biggest fan of the a cappella groups, I go to hear them all the time,” he says. “But trust me, you don’t want me to sing with them.”