JTA — The Talmudic sage Hillel famously disagreed with Shammai, but still respected him and promoted ahavat Yisrael — the love of every Jew. As the incoming president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Eric Fingerhut wants to channel the spirit of the organization’s namesake.
“I seek to follow his teachings — his inclusive approach to Jewish life,” Fingerhut told JTA Monday. “Ahavat Yisrael is the model we follow.”
A former Ohio congressman and chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents from 2007 to 2011, Fingerhut was confirmed this week as the successor to Wayne Firestone, who resigned the post last year. He comes to Hillel with more than three decades’ of experience in education and public service, most recently as vice president of education and STEM Learning (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at Battelle, a research institute in Columbus.
From 1993 to 1994, he represented Ohio’s 19th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. After losing his reelection bid, he ran for a seat in the Ohio state senate, where he served from 1997 to 2006. In 2004, he was the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, losing to George Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor and Ohio governor.
“Hillel has a very compelling and frankly clear mission and vision, which excites me and motivates me,” Fingerhut said. “We are going to reach out and be there for the Jewish students on all of our campuses to provide them with the highest quality activities so they can figure out what their connection to the Jewish people is, and what their Jewish life is going to be like.”
Hillel has more than 550 locations in North America, Israel, the former Soviet Union, Europe, and Latin America. More than 400,000 students participate in Hillel activities in North America alone, while the organization says 100,000 students join every year. Fingerhut would like to see Hillel continue its growth on the campuses where it already has a presence and expand to new locations, which means promoting the organization’s importance to potential donors.
“We have to be aggressive in communicating to the Jewish community that the future of their communities is on our campuses,” he said.
It’s no secret that some campuses have become havens for anti-Israel activity in recent years, a fact that certainly concerns Fingerhut. A pro-Israel stance is essential not just to Hillel but to his own personal beliefs, he emphasized.
“Hillel is pro-Israel. It exists to help build love for and support for a safe, secure, free, democratic Jewish homeland, and that is part of our core mission,” he said.
But with a vibrant and vocal pro-Palestinian community on many campuses, Fingerhut conceded that Hillel has not done an adequate job winning hearts and minds.
“We’re clearly not succeeding where we need to be, but the goal is clear. And as president I will be constantly working with our partners to improve our strategy and introduce new and better ways to install that love of Israel in the next generation,” he said. “They will act on what they have learned in these formative years.”