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Eric D. Fingerhut Addresses the Inaugural Hillel International: Global Assembly

by Hillel News | Dec 10, 2014 |

The following is the video and full text of the December 9, 2014 presidential address by Eric D. Fingerhut during the inaugural Hillel International: Global Assembly in Orlando, Florida.

Friends and colleagues, welcome to Orlando, and welcome to Hillel International’s first Global Assembly. I am honored to be here with my Hillel family and so many of our dear friends this evening. I want to thank you all for dropping what you were doing and fitting this conference into your schedule and budgets without knowing for sure what we would be doing here. We often talk to students about their “Jewish Journeys,” but I want you to know that I don’t take this particular journey you made lightly. My colleagues and I at the Schusterman International Center are determined to make it a valuable Jewish Journey for each of you.

This is our first all-hands professional gathering in six years. And it’s about time! It is what our dear colleague Esther Abramovitz would call a Shehecheyanu moment. On college campuses and communities across the globe, we are about one thing: ensuring the Future of the Jewish People. Everything we do, every day, is for that reason. God willing, we will gather in future Decembers to continue charting the course of our precious Hillel movement, with more and more of us in attendance each year. So, on this first Hillel International Global Assembly, let us join in reciting the Shecheyanu, thanking God for enabling us to come together to do this holy work at this important time in the history of the Jewish people. 

I want to acknowledge the record number of partner organizations who have joined our first Global Assembly – more than 60 strong. We know that we would not be able to do our work without each and every one of you. I thank you for your help and look forward to continuing and growing these partnerships.

There is so much to cover in this talk because there is so much happening at Hillels across the globe.  So, to let you gauge where I am in the speech, and to make sure we get to the Community Fair on time, I plan to cover three points. 

They each come with a word, and a song. 

Katonti. From the root “Katon,” it means “I’m small. I’m humble.”

Gesher. “A bridge,” as in “All the world is a narrow bridge.”

Yachad. “Together.”

So let’s begin.

In 2013, “Katonti” was the Song of the Year in Israel. The singer is Yonatan Razel. The text is from the parsha we read this past Shabbat, Vayishlach. Jacob is about to encounter Esau for the first time since fleeing from him more than twenty years before. Jacob has reason to believe that Esau is on the way to attack him, not to reconcile. And so Jacob prays to God. But he doesn’t pray for protection. Instead, he uses a classic expression of humility, in the face of all that God has done for the Jewish people, and all the world.    


Katonti mikol hachasadim v’ha’emet asher asita et avdecha. Katonti – I’m so small – I’m so humble – in the face of all God’s good deeds, and God’s truth.

Katonti. This is how I feel when I think about the things all of you have done for the Jewish people in these eighteen months since I had the privilege of joining you in this work.  The lives you have touched, the sparks you have lit, the truly magical Jewish moments you have created on your campuses and in your communities. It would be really easy to just say thank you for all you do.  But that doesn’t quite capture how I feel about your work.

I know that the Jewish community is worried about the Jewish future, and they wonder if today’s college students will be ready to inherit the mantel of leadership. If someone who is not on campus everyday bases their impression only on what they read and hear, this concern is understandable. 

Thank you is too simple. Katonti. I am humbled by your work.

I used to be in politics. I know that negative news travels at the speed of light, while good news seems like it is delivered by the Pony Express. And so I know it is discouraging that challenging moments on campus become better known, while your daily victories of love and connection remain unsung, but you don’t let that stop you from your life-changing work.   

Katonti. It humbles me. Your work is not only life changing, it is also lifesaving.

At American University, Hillel’s Tzedek Intern Ali Braun is working with Mazon to address hunger through policy work. Work like Ali’s is going on at Hillels across the world. And, by the way, this is the tenth anniversary of the Challah for Hunger program, which was created by former Hillel student leader Eli Winkelman, and is currently under the guidance of former Hillel student leader and professional Carly Zimmerman. 


At the University of Maryland Hillel, thirty-eight students volunteered to spend the holiday leading services for Jewish inmates at area prisons. This is the second year Maryland Hillel has engaged in this program.



Rotem Ohana, Hillel Director at Sapir College in Israel, which is located in what was a military zone during the Hamas War last summer, continued to see students in her home throughout the conflict. At the sound of the siren, she had only fifteen seconds to run to the closest shelter. With all of that going on, she directed student volunteers to provide social services to the local community, including aiding Holocaust Survivors. During the conflict student volunteers would buy them groceries and offer assistance even while Hamas missiles were being fired. 


Then there’s Valeria Kholodova, the Director of Hillel in Donetsk. She stayed in the Eastern Ukrainian City as the conflict with Russian Separatists escalated until it finally became too unsafe and the Hillel was officially shut down.  While still in Donetsk, she continued to comfort and advise students, as well as coordinate efforts to deliver food to the elderly. 


Back in my home state of Ohio, you need look no further than Ohio University for tales of courage under a different kind of fire.  Having already dealt with a deeply upsetting anti-Israel incident that divided the campus community and led to the improper arrests of four Jewish students, Ohio University was afflicted again, this time by a major fire that destroyed several businesses and apartment buildings in town. Rabbi Danielle and the Ohio University Hillel, with the help of AEPi, came together to turn the second floor of the Hillel building into temporary housing for six students who lost their home in the fire. Thank you, Danielle, for having such courage and poise under fires of different origins. 


On the first day of Operation Protective Edge, the IDC Student Unions' Advocacy Room in Israel was opened. More than 600 volunteers came and worked throughout the Hamas War, for 30 straight days, to tell the real story of what was happening. Forty million people were exposed to the materials they created across different platforms! The Israeli Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister's Office called it "one of the most significant civilian advocacy efforts for the State of Israel.”


And watch this.

“It's On Us” focuses on changing how people think about sexual assault, promoting bystander intervention and raising awareness. 


The work of four Hillels was recognized by the annual Slingshot Guide as among the most innovative programs in Jewish Nonprofits in North America. They included the University of Maryland’s Hillel Fellowships, the Jewish Renaissance Project at Penn Hillel, George Washington University Hillel’s ‘Gather the Jews,’ and the J’Burgh project at the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. 


Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the Executive Director of New York University’s Hillel, was the central focus of the documentary “Of Many,” which debuted this summer and was produced by Chelsea Clinton. In “Of Many,” Yehuda and his colleague at NYU, Imam Khalid Latif, show that dialogue between Muslims and Jews is possible even in these challenging times. 


And Hillel helps save lives in other ways. To date, the partnership between Hillel and the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation has resulted in 37,522 registered donors, 1,277 matches, and 208 lives saved.


I could spend the rest of the evening talking about the good work all of you do every day of the week. But it is the stories I do not know, the quiet conversations in your office or while walking down the street, the moments of study, the late night call of comfort to a student under stress – the unseen work of Hillel professionals – that moves me the most. 

I can’t tell you how many of your students I have met this year who told me that you literally changed their lives, possibly in ways that you don’t even know. Thank you is not enough.


I am truly humbled.  

You are the most important ingredient, but we cannot forget the physical places where we do our work.     

In the past few months, you made it possible to cut the ribbon on the beautiful new Hillel building at San Diego State, and to break ground on new buildings at Rutgers, at the University of Miami, and in Cleveland at Case Western Reserve University. At the University of Pennsylvania, Hillel’s home, Steinhardt Hall, celebrated its Bar Mitzvah. Mazel Tov. 

Of the many names for God we have in our Jewish tradition, one of the most popular is Hamakom – literally, “the place.” I have puzzled over this for years, but I think I understand it better now. The purpose of using Makom as a name for God leads, as writer Jeremy Leigh put it, to the “important conclusion that all places are connected to God and sacredness does not rest in any one place.”

My friends, the spaces you create for this holy work – in Hillel buildings, in cafeterias, on the college green, in shelters, in schools – these are all places where God resides. 


Before I move on, let me add one more Katonti. 

Reb Chaim, congratulations on fulfilling nearly 40 years leading Hillel at UCLA, and on your pending retirement. Thank you for your decades of dedicated service, which I know will continue in new and innovative ways. And let me welcome Rabbi Aaron Lerner, who will soon step into this critically important role for the Jewish people. 


I know how hard all of you work. And I know that the work you do is demanding. Challenges that didn’t exist during much of Hillel’s 90-year history make your jobs today more complicated and demanding than ever.

And, to top it off, lots of folks sitting on the sidelines feel free to tell you how to do your job. It reminds me of the political pundits on the cable talk shows. They get paid to tell politicians how they should have handled a problem, and what they did wrong, without any appreciation of what it is really like in the arena. I remember the feeling well, from my days in politics. 

Judaism is a religion of joy, of Simcha. We come before God in song. We rejoice in the Torah. But despite this tradition, one of our great rabbis, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Nachman of Bratslav, had a difficult time feeling joy. It was always a struggle for him. He saw the world as a narrow bridge.

I know you understand the feeling of being on a narrow bridge. There’s never enough money to do that which needs to be done, and too much time is spent raising what you do have. The staff you have works hard and tries hard, but it is not necessarily the staff you need. Your board means well but doesn’t like to ask their friends for money.

And what should be our greatest joy – the land and people of Israel – on too many campuses has become our greatest struggle. It is not my intention to dwell at length on this struggle tonight. We have other times and other sessions set aside for this important discussion at this Global Assembly. However, it is not possible to address you this evening without acknowledging the extent to which the BDS movement on campuses and the challenge to Hillel’s Israel guidelines have taken so much of our time these past eighteen months. And the BDS movement seems destined to take even more time in the coming year.

Hillel is not immune to the forces roiling our world. In fact, because of our size and breadth, we stand in the middle of those crosswinds and in the direct path of incoming fire from many directions. That’s because we work on 550 college campuses in North America, and beyond. As the central address of Jewish life on campus, we are a big target.

Last year, the tenth anniversary of the BDS campaign, saw more anti-Jewish activity on American college campuses than in the previous 10 years combined. Thanks to your hard work and commitment, and by working more closely than ever with our pro-Israel partners, BDS proponents suffered more defeats last year than in previous years.

But each minute spent on these matters was a minute not spent teaching the beauty of our tradition and our path to living a fulfilling, meaningful life.  

I will not mince words. BDS exists to do only one thing … destroy the state of Israel. It’s American-based supporters and activists, no matter what they call themselves, want to pull Hillel away from our core mission and vision to connect Jewish college students to Jewish life, Jewish learning, and to the state of Israel.

At the end of the day, that will never happen. It will never happen because we will not let it happen. And because our friends won’t let it happen. 

One example. Thanks to the support of the Jewish Federations of North America, our recently created Division of Israel Education and Engagement – Hineinu – was able to bring representatives from Makom, an organization dedicated to enriching Israel educational initiatives, to more than twenty campuses in the fall for intensive training sessions with students and staff to prepare for anti-Israel activities on campus.

And with the support of JFNA, the Jewish Agency, and the Jim Joseph Foundation, thirty veteran Israel Fellows- reservists, milluim, came to campuses this fall that did not have permanent Israel Fellows to also help us be prepared.

We are also thankful to our friends, like Jonathan Kessler and AIPAC, and its student leaders, whose work on campus is so critical, and whose collaboration with Hillel leaders on campus is deeply appreciated.

And we are deeply grateful for our very close working relationship with the Israel on Campus Coalition under its fabulous director, Jacob Baime.

Students involved with AEPi, Stand With Us, CAMERA, Hasbara and the David Project are among the leaders on campus facing down BDS and anti-Jewish issues. We thank them for being with us here also at this Global Assembly. On many campuses, students from J Street U have also joined in the coalition against BDS.

And I must give a special thank you to our generous donors who help fund so much of our important pro-Israel work. Without your faith in us, and your active support, we could not do what we do.

Just as we have become more sophisticated in dealing with the annual SJP conference – with lessons learned from Rabbi Mike Uram at Penn, and Rabbi Serena Eisenberg at Stanford, applied and improved upon by Rabbi Jeff Summit at Tufts this fall, so will we become more skilled and sophisticated at beating the BDS challenge. 

However, we must make the extra effort not just to win these fights, but to do so without losing sight of the joy and Simcha that we experience by building our own relationship with the Jewish state, and that we want our students to experience when we help them do the same.

That is why we will continue to increase our efforts to engage and educate all Jewish students about what Israel means to the Jewish people, and what its detractors on campus are really trying to do. 

We must do both. And we can do both.

And finally, a word about argument and disagreement. As many noted this past year, Jewish arguments are not only accepted, they are the very basis on which our tradition moves itself forward. Hillel, no less than any other Jewish organization at any time in Jewish history, knows and appreciates the value of dissent and disagreement.

But Hillel also has a special role in setting boundaries around appropriate arguments.  After all, in the famous passage from Pirkei Avot, in which the distinction is made between a proper argument – a machloket leshem shamayim, an argument in the name of heaven – and an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, it is the debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that are cited as an exemplar of a good argument – an argument for the sake of heaven – while the rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moses and Aaron is held out as the exemplar of an argument that is not for the sake of heaven.

Many lessons about proper boundaries have been derived from this Mishnah.  Allow me to cite two. 

First, the Torah tells us that Moses reached out to Datan and Aviram, two of Korach’s accomplices, but they refused to meet with Moses.  From this episode, our sages teach us that an unwillingness to engage in dialogue, even with those who are obviously not seeking compromise, is wrong.  This is why I and so many of you have sought out opportunities to dialogue with Hillel’s critics on campus, and will continue to do so, even though these efforts at dialogue too often produce critical responses from those with whom we spoke.   

Second, our sages also point out that Korach claimed he was seeking equality with Moses and Aaron, when in fact he sought to become the high priest himself. This deliberate attempt to hide one’s true motives makes Korach’s efforts beyond the pale. 

We, too, have experienced deception in the past year. As you all know personally and deeply, Hillel is an open, pluralistic organization that works hard every day to make as many people as possible feel welcome and appreciated. 

To anyone who sincerely questions this we have compelling evidence that provides a clear and unequivocal response.

However, some who claim Hillel is not open do not really mean that. Their real agenda is to have another platform for anti-Israel agitation. This is an argument that is not for the sake of heaven, and one we will not join.

Now to Yachad.

In his famous quotation, Reb Nachman of Bratslav says the only response to living on the narrow bridge is to not be afraid. 

Well, in the Talmudic tradition of arguing with great scholars, I say we can do better than just not being afraid. We can broaden the bridge. We can build extra supports underneath it so it will not collapse under the extra weight. We can build higher railings so no one will fall off, and install netting below so that anyone who climbs higher will still not be hurt if they fall.

You know your campus and communities better than anyone. You know how to reach students better than I can ever hope to learn. I only know one thing, and that is that we can’t build that stronger bridge individually, we must do it together. Our vision, and our obligation to the Jewish people, is to reach and engage as many Jewish students as possible wherever they can be found, on any campus and in any corner of the globe. We can only achieve this vision working together. 

It is not enough for you to care about the Jewish students in your area. You must care for all Jewish students. 

Hal, as chair of the Director’s Cabinet, I know you work on the quality of Jewish student life at Cornell all your waking hours, and then some in your sleep. But, I must tell you, that even if you met all the measures of excellence at Cornell, your work is not done if there is a Jewish student anywhere that is not being served.

And, as we have learned in this day of a highly charged 24/7 political and media landscape, what happens at one Hillel anywhere in the world affects all of us wherever we may be. Like it or not, that’s the world we live in.

This Global Assembly is about how we embrace our responsibility to the Jewish future as a unified and dedicated global movement. That is what “The Drive to Excellence” is intended to do. I’m sure a few of you have heard about it by now. Some of you may have even read it.

The Drive to Excellence is straightforward. Excellence happens at local Hillels, on campus and in communities. We will hold ourselves to high standards in the performance of our local Hillels. Our aspiration at each local Hillel is to engage 70 percent of all Jewish students at least once, 40 percent repeatedly, and 20 percent in high-impact experiences. 

And we, all of us, will be accountable for our results.

Eighteen of your colleagues are right now piloting the Measures of Excellence for local Hillels. I could not be more grateful for their initiative and willingness to serve as a test for the entire movement. 

While each of you strive for excellence on your campus or in your community, we at the International center will also be measured against high standards. By the end of five years, we will help 50 local Hillels achieve excellence on all measures, and 85% of the remainder will be improving year over year. To accomplish these goals, the International center will focus on Three Pillars of activity that will support the entire Hillel movement.   

First, we will work with you to recruit and develop the best people to work at Hillel, which we also will make one of the greatest places in the Jewish world to work. I say work with you to recruit talent, because you, our professionals, are the best source of future talent. You know who is out there and who we need to have work with Hillel. You also know why people we want choose not to join us. Or why people we want to stay choose to leave.

Second, the right people need access to the best practices.  By spreading that which has been tried and tested, while also encouraging innovation and experimentation, we’ll build a repertoire of methodologies and initiatives that will help us provide excellent experiences for Jewish students on college campuses.

For example, we know that when Hillel connects with Jewish college students during their college years, and they do Tzedek projects, or join us for Shabbat, or bake Challah, among other activities, they are more likely to be engaged meaningfully in later life with their Jewish community and their Judaism.

We know that going to Israel is a big deal for connecting young Jewish adults to their heritage and homeland, and of course benefit from the opportunity to help students participate in Birthright, Onward Israel and Masa.

Recently, Taglit-Birthright Israel announced that 400,000 Jewish students have participated in a Birthright experience. We are proud that more than 100,000 of those students have gone on Hillel-led trips.

Hillel International is also proud to be partnering with Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies to place full-time IACT professionals on a growing number of campuses.  

We are grateful to Barry Schrage and his team for the amazing resources they have helped generate for local Hillels in Boston and around the United States. 

Additional generous donors have also made the expansion of this program possible through Hillel’s own version of this program.

Third, good professionals must have the resources needed to implement those best practices in every key area of excellence. 

The truth about fundraising is that the resources available to Jewish philanthropy are growing exponentially, but the expectations of potential donors are also increasing. They want to know what impact we are making, and how their funds will make a difference. It only makes sense to bring our development expertise to bear in support of all local Hillels, and not just in meeting the budget of the International center.

“The Drive to Excellence” is very clear that everyone will be held accountable equally, including me and my colleagues at the Schusterman International Center. To hold Hillel International accountable, we have developed a transparent Dashboard that will measure how well we are doing in helping local Hillels achieve excellence. I intend to pull out the International center’s Dashboard at each meeting of our board, and with every Hillel employee and key stakeholder I meet. Sometimes it may not be pretty, but it will be truthful. And we will use it to achieve our ends.

In addition to the Measuring Excellence Pilot Program on 18 campuses that is helping us build a campus excellence Dashboard, we are conducting a Comprehensive Excellence program on three campuses with the support of the Beacon and Shapira Foundations, and David and Cindy Shapira.

The Comprehensive Excellence pilot asks the question:  “What if your local Hillel had everything that worked?” What if you had the right talent on your staff, the capacity to keep growing and serving more Jewish students on campus and in your community, and had the financial support to do it all? We believe that if we answer these questions clearly and transparently on our pilot campuses, that we will be able to generate support to answer them everywhere the Hillel name is on the door. 

Being with all of you this evening I feel the energy of the global Hillel movement coming together in new and exciting ways. As I’ve said, what Hillel does on campuses and communities around the world every day of every week is all about that one thing: our people’s future.

It’s important for those of you who are new to Hillel to know how far we have come since our simple beginnings in 1923 at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana, the flattest place in America.

A few months ago, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hillel in Russia. In Central Asia and Southeastern Europe, Hillel staff work with thirteen Hillels in six countries, including Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

I joined a Hillel contingent in Moscow for the celebration of Hillel Russia’s anniversary milestone, and then we traveled to the Ukraine and the cities of Kiev and Odessa. There, in the birthplace of Shalom Aleichem, we looked out over the Black Sea, thinking about the past lives of Jews there and the new seeds we had planted for a revival, with new Jewish roots taking hold.

I watched how the Ukrainian Hillel community took in their brethren from embattled Donetsk to provide safe harbor in troubled times. This is what we have always done for Jews in trouble. I’m sure our founders in Champagne-Urbana, Illinois in 1923 never thought this would be part of Hillel’s job, but it is. 

Nor did they ever think that the Hillel movement would have an expanding presence in South America. Or in Australia. Here among us tonight are Hillel colleagues from Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. They join our colleagues from Canada, Central Asia, Europe, Russia, and Israel. As you may know, we operate in 18 time zones on five continents.

This is the first truly global Jewish generation. The Jewish people may live in every corner of the world, but we must not be isolated from each other. Instead, we must get to know each other, learn from each other, and delight in our rich and varied culture, all supporting one faith and one people.

That is why we have made it a goal to not only support Hillels throughout the globe, but to connect Hillels from different parts of the world to each other. There are currently relationships between Hillels at leading universities, including Hillel Technion & Hillel MIT, Hillel at Ben Gurion University & Hillel Montreal, Hillel IDC & Hillel Baruch, Hillel Rio & Hillel Kiev, Hillel Haifa & Hillel Odessa, Hillel Hebrew U & JTS, Hillel Tel Hai & The Union of Jewish Students in the UK, and Hillel at Washington University and IDC.

And there is more to come. 

During this Global Assembly, we are launching a new grant program made possible by Diane and Howard Wohl to incentivize exactly these type of cross-border collaborations between Hillels. 

Before I conclude my remarks, there is one more story I need to tell.

Last week at this time, several of our International board members and I were in Berlin for the launch of Hillel Germany. The recent, terrible history of Germany is always there. But so are the present and the future. This is Hillel Germany. And also now in Austria and Switzerland.

Our President Emeritus, Avraham Infeld, likes to say that Jews do not have history, we have memory. Avraham, my dear friend and mentor, in Germany, Jews have history and memory. And now Hillel is there to build a Jewish future as well.


Yachad kulam. 

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