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Graduating: Firestone to leave Hillel

by Hillel News |Sep 28, 2012|Comments
Wayne Firestone This article was originally published on September 27, 2012 in the Washington Jewish Week.

by Meredith Jacobs
Managing Editor

Leading what has been called by Edgar Bronfman "a historic transformation" at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Wayne Firestone will step down from his post as chief executive in June 2013.

Firestone, 48, who lives in Rockville with wife Stephanie Krone Firestone and their three daughters, ages 10, 15 and 17, will continue "to write and think on behalf of the Jewish people." Noting that he has led the organization through two strategic plans and that the organization's next growth phase will require a tremendous fundraising effort, he believes this is the time for him to leave. In the months ahead, he plans to help transition and mentor his replacement as Avram Infeld, who led Hillel through the transition from previous CEO Richard Joel, did for him.

Described as "a big mensch, approachable, smart and easy to connect with," by Ari Israel, director of the University of Maryland Hillel, Firestone understood how to connect a student's transformative college years with Judaism.

"I was interested in human rights issues and was immediately taken with Soviet rights," explains Firestone of his own college years as a Hillel student activist at the University of Miami. "I spent a year at Tel Aviv University and really got involved senior year in Soviet Jewry activism and Israel activism. Did I expect students could be full leaders and help advance their forms of advocacy where Israel and Judaism could be at the forefront? Absolutely."

Just as it did for him. Judaism became not simply his focus, "but became my passion."

Following college, Georgetown University Law Center and several years as an associate for the law firm Patton, Boggs, LLP, Firestone moved to Israel to work as a lecturer at Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. In 1998 he founded Silicon Wadinet, Ltd., a firm that helped foster the capitalization and growth of technology companies and finally in 2001 he served as director of the Israel regional office of the Anti-Defamation league.

He joined Hillel in 2002 as executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, becoming CEO of the organization in 2005. He led Hillel through two strategic plans, resulting in unprecedented growth, from 33 percent to 45 percent student involvement from 2005 to 2012, according to a formal study. Hillel now has a global presence, including 11 Hillels in Israel, which Firestone describes as part of the growth of the "Jewish voice in Israel" and the creation of more options for Jewish people around the world.

"Hillel used to be a programming organization. It only attracted 15 percent [of Jewish students on campus]," explains Rabbi Yoni Kaiser Blueth, director of the George Washington University Hillel. "We invested in becoming a relationship-building organization. Jewish life doesn't have to happen in the building."

And, it is exactly this emphasis on student engagement over programming that Rabbi Dan Freedlander, senior vp for Reform Judaism, believes is Firestone's "strongest legacy."

Firestone describes the change in the definition of "success" at Hillel. In previous years, if a student wanted to light a yahrzeit candle in memory of a grandparent and walked into the campus Hillel building where the rabbi helped him light the candle, that was success. Now, success is that student lighting a candle in his dorm or fraternity house, surrounded by both Jewish and non-Jewish students, having been empowered by Hillel programming to feel comfortable doing Jewish in the world.

"My generation was looking to assimilate and take advantage of the opportunities that we were previously excluded from, the fraternities and dining clubs," says Firestone of the playing field that expanded on campus for previous generations. "But universal inclusionism came at a cost. Everyone so bought into the idea that they could be like everyone else that they started missing what made them different.

"I think this generation will return, not like the shtetl or the ba'al teshuvah movement. But I think there will be an authentic craving in exploring authentic Jewish interests be they spiritual, textual or social."

Hillel changed when it began to "listen to the customer," he explains. It started treating college students as young adults and not youth. He uses Homer's Odyssey as a metaphor for the college years - the journey both from, and the return to, home. It is during this journey that the student encounters Judaism for the first time as an adult.

"With our 2.0 peer engagement strategy, I needed this generation of students and this group of professionals to be my co-authors." Firestone believes the changes in Hillel worked specifically for this generation - a generation that is well-traveled, that has been exposed to more than previous generations, that is more ethically and religiously diverse and that therefore has a desire to have an understanding of its own group. Hillel has the unique opportunity to help the students understand how Judaism fits into that larger story. "Facebook and the like are not just changes on the Internet, but changes in the way we are connecting. For a generation so plugged in to gadgets, this is a generation that needed face time and in person time. They are thirsty and hungry for it."

Steven A. Rakitt, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, a funding partner with five campus Hillels, describes Firestone as "a visionary." He believes Firestone understood that what worked before does not work for this generation. "The student population has changed. Many are from interfaith households and are looking for engagement in the Jewish community different than the standard model. Social media has changed the speed in which things happened. And the audience has a broad sense of engagement that may include the Jewish community and may also include the general community."

Further proof of Hillel's success is in the organizations that have been built by recent alums - innovative organizations like Moishe House, Challah for Hunger and PresenTense.

But Firestone doesn't take for granted this moment of time when they are seeing a growth of demand. "To the extent that I'm optimistic about the future, the window of opportunity with Millenials may not be open forever. If we're not responsible, they may move on. The Hillel we're creating today will have to grow and expand. The community will have to find new and creative ways to show them there are going to be internships, coffee dates and opportunities to meet when they arrive in new cities. Opportunities to be on boards of organizations. We need to look more like a shuk than a supermarket - lots of different accents and choices and voices. I think students like and crave that. We can't move them with marketing and cool Jew slogans.

They're too smart for that. They're looking for meaning, substance, camaraderie and authenticity."

David Holzel contributed to this article.

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