To the non-Jewish community, that is.
At least, that’s part of the thinking of Hillel’s new President, Wayne L. Firestone. Mr. Firestone came to the position this past year, taking the reins from the dynamic veteran educator Avraham Infeld, who himself followed Richard Joel, the man who literally reinvented Hillel – and along the way quadrupled its budget and made it a high profile, cutting-edge Jewish initiative fighting Jewish apathy and pushing a love of Jewish living.
Enter Mr. Firestone, 43, in town last week with hundreds of Hillel professionals for the operation’s annual staff conference. Mr. Firestone took a break one afternoon from the endless meetings to discuss his challenges with the JEWISH TIMES.
BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES : You’ve headed Hillel since September 2006. What is your priority?
Wayne L. Firestone: I want people to know Hillel’s story today, meaning we are well known for 83 years of activities on campus, but I’m concerned that people don’t know Hillel’s value proposition, its faces, its voices. That includes the professionals, student leaders, board people from communities around the country. It’s both a blessing and a curse when people have a nostalgic sense of anything.
Then what is Hillel today?
We are a place that aspires to be welcoming to all Jews with no litmus test. It’s not a club and it’s not a building that’s a safe haven or an enclave to protect Jews from campus. Jews today on campus are not only comfortable with expressing their Jewishness, but they are actively interested in expressing their distinctness as Jews. It’s not compartmentalizing it with things that take place in the building or things that take place ritualistically.
What defines this generation of students?
We have a generation that is actively interested in identity. Jewish identity is not considering filling in two bubble dots on a questionnaire. It’s a generation that’s grown up with two windows on a computer screen and thinking that’s normative in terms of being diverse. We think that’s one of the greatest opportunities to explore Jewish identity ever in Jewish history. The chance is not just to define myself as Jew according to halachah [Jewish law] or according to what I eat, or where I pray, but that there are Jewish values which form my multiple actions and identities.
That option of being Jewish is open to me. It’s not one that I’m choosing because I feel guilty or it’s something my parents made me do, but one that I affirm as being integral to my identity. And, oh, by the way it may not be presented interestingly and meaningfully to me.
It sounds like you’re trying to be all things to all people, which obviously you cannot be.
We have to have some principles, so this idea that we’re becoming more open has to be the over-riding one. We have shifted from a model that’s hard-drive – our buildings and physical environment – to think of our ourselves as software – our operating system, which can connect to people on different pages, whether it’s history or whether it’s religion, or whether it’s Jewish values. That kind of thing can be exciting to people who don’t know their Jewish identity, let alone their Hebrew name or haftorah portion.
What do college students have in common these days?
There is only one thing in common with all of them and that is what are they doing the day they leave college. Job? Career? It’s even beyond that. It’s framed around that, but who councils on the issue of loneliness? On Happiness? On what if I’m an investment banker and suddenly have all of this money? We’ve had some conversations with universities. We think the universities have a lot to be proud of. People in America are very invested in their success. Universities are currently in a mode of figuring out what they are good at and what they are not. One thing we know they are not great at is building character and building citizenship.
We have a lot of experience in that with Katrina and birthright. We’re seriously invested in young people who are demanding all kinds of interesting models on discussions of controversial topics. One would expect universities are great with that. It turns out they’re not. We’ve said we can show you how people with very divergent views can come together and study and learn and agree to disagree in a very civil way.
How do you measure success?
They may understand [what they experience] now or may not, but the real test of our success is no longer how we do on campus. We say we want every Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life. The question is where is the Jewish community 10 to 15 years from now with the Jewish students that it invests in today?
We need to understand that Hillel is not the last place to meet students before they get lost to intermarriage and assimilation. It’s not creating a bunch of different portals and seeing who goes through it, but to say that every person can have open Jewish portals and create Jewish memories. They are going to forget a lot of stuff from college, but we actually think we know -- say from the students who we take on Katrina volunteer programs and have them study Jewish text for the first time in the lives, from students who went on Taglit-birthright Israel and explored in intellectual and spiritual terms – that those activities may be something they carry with them their entire life.
Wayne L. Firestone, 43, is an attorney by profession. In the mid-1990s until 2002, he worked in Israel as a high-tech executive, a lecturer at Haifa’s Technion-Institute of Technology and then as director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel Office.
During his college days of the early 1980s, he was a Jewish student activist at the University of Miami. He came to Hillel’s Washington headquarters in 2002 as executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. In 2005, he became Hillel’s executive vice-president.