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Building the Jewish future

Questions and answers with Adam Lehman, interim CEO of Hillel International
by Shana Medel |Jul 01, 2019|Comments

Hillel International is undertaking an important leadership transition, as Eric D. Fingerhut moves on to his new role as president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.  

Starting this week, Adam Lehman, chief operating officer of Hillel International, is stepping up to lead as interim CEO of the nearly 100-year-old Jewish organization.

A successful executive and entrepreneur, Lehman dedicated more than 20 years of his professional career to driving growth strategies at companies such as AOL, where he served as a senior vice president and divisional chief operating officer.

With the benefit of his business-building experience, Hillel International has more than doubled its operating revenue and has implemented several innovative programs and initiatives that enrich Jewish life at Hillels around the world.

Hillel News chatted with Lehman before he joined dozens of Hillel professionals at Dwell, a camp-like retreat in upstate New York that fosters Jewish learning. Below are highlights from our conversation about the future of the Hillel movement, his role as interim CEO and even his a cappella group, JewKvox.

You've co-founded and led several startups and “speedups.” What’s the difference between them? Is Hillel in startup mode or speedup mode?

“It’s increasingly common to differentiate between startups and speedups in Silicon Valley. Startups are new ventures that begin by piloting and testing their innovations. They’re trying to understand and validate how they can potentially address a market need. Speedups already have a proven plan and product or service. They’ve locked in on their bullseye, meaning they’re already meeting an important need with the product or service they’re providing. As speedups, their focus shifts to rapidly growing to achieve their full potential.

“At Hillel, we have a proven plan. We’ve spent the past five years honing a framework for defining excellence and the many pathways to achieve excellence — with the help of tools like measurement, campus support and design thinking. So, we have the plan, pathways and, with the help of our robust talent strategy, a great team. And there’s no question we’re in a position to meet important needs through our work. As much as ever, students are in search of identity, meaning and community. With all of those ingredients in place, it’s now incumbent on us to accelerate toward fulfilling our ambitious mission and vision.

Hillel International is entering the final year of its five-year strategic plan, “The Drive to Excellence.” Is Hillel on track to meet those ambitious goals?

“We’ve exceeded our goals in several areas, like measurement, hiring a broad complement of senior Jewish educators and creating a culture of continuous improvement that’s reflected in 85% of Hillels improving year over year.

“We haven’t yet achieved our core student engagement goals, but we’re absolutely going to get there. Our goals by the end of 2020 are to engage at least 140,000 Jewish students across our movement at least once during the academic year, which we refer to as ‘breadth engagement’, and to engage at least 60,000 students at least six times or through an immersive experience, which we refer to as ‘depth engagement.’ We’re currently tallying movement-wide results for the academic year that just concluded. We’ll likely need to increase our breadth engagement by between 20,000 and 25,000 students and our depth engagement level by around 10,000. While that may seem like a lot, I’m sure that we’ll be able to rally together across our movement to make the 2019-2020 year our strongest ever in terms of student engagement.”

How is Hillel marrying qualitative and quantitative data to engage and inspire every Jewish student?

“I like to think of our use of qualitative and quantitative data as the difference between counting students ‘showing up’ and changing hearts and minds. We’re reliant on and highly confident in the abilities of our Hillel professionals in the field to achieve both our quantitative and qualitative objectives. On the one hand, Hillel professionals are the best in the business when it comes to engaging students. On the other hand, they bring a real depth to the way they work with students. The passion and heart they bring to our collective work transcends just programming and promoting events, coffee dates and immersive experiences, and generates the quality of relationships that change students’ lives.”

“The way we blend our quantitative and qualitative goals is also reflected in both our mission and vision. The ‘every’ and ‘enduring’ elements within our vision — to inspire every student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel — nicely reflect both the quantitative and qualitative. At the same time, we are committed to our mission of enriching the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. In order to live up to this mission, we’ll be pursuing a deeper understanding of how to define and measure the impact of our work on the lives of Jewish students and on the Jewish and broader communities they in turn transform.”

After four years as chief operating officer of Hillel International, you’re transitioning to interim CEO. How will your day-to-day responsibilities change?

“I’m already shifting toward a greater external focus on our field professionals, lay leaders, stakeholders, partners, and of course, our students. That just means I’ll need to rely that much more fully on the rest of our leadership and team at Hillel International to manage various aspects of the day-to-day operations of our organization. Though, frankly, that’s a pretty easy thing to do given the excellent teammates I work with at Hillel International.”

From the creation of Hillel Talent Grants to the hiring and expansion of campus support directors, Hillel International has been prioritizing talent. Why is training and retaining talented professionals a high priority for the movement? Should other nonprofits make big bets on talent?

“The benefit of having data is that it takes you past the anecdotal and brings you to the verifiable. Our data has made it clear that having talented professionals working with students on campus is the most important ingredient for success. 

“Other Jewish organizations and beyond are catching on to the talent revolution. It’s something I encountered in Silicon Valley, where talent management and investment became all the rage a few years ago. In fact, the new startup I was working on just before coming to Hillel was a talent management platform. It was based on my belief that creating opportunities for emerging professionals to stretch and grow, even across disciplines, is going to become a core aspect of every organization’s operating approach. And it’s increasingly clear that other organizations are adopting this talent investment focus. Even as they adopt new practices and programs we’ve innovated at Hillel, we’ll applaud and support them. And we’ll nonetheless continue to lead the way on talent, since we’re already working from an outstanding base of talent and remain as committed as ever to their growth, development and support.”

You received your bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College, and your law degree from Harvard Law School. Were you active in Hillel while in school? What drew you to work at Hillel?

“When I was a freshman at Dartmouth College, I lost my grandmother. I spoke about her with Rabbi Michael Paley, who was a young Hillel rabbi at the time. Prior to arriving at Dartmouth, I didn’t imagine that Hillel would be a big part of my college experience, but my relationship with Rabbi Paley encouraged me to become involved and remain involved in Hillel throughout my time in Hanover. Nowadays, I’m able to look back on that experience and understand the long-term impact Hillel can have on a young person. And there’s no question that my Hillel experience played a part in leading to my current work as a Hillel professional. I feel blessed to have been called to this work.  It’s the most mission-oriented opportunity I’ve had to express myself professionally.”

What is the most challenging aspect of your new position? What are you most looking forward to as interim CEO of Hillel International?

“At this point, the biggest challenge is the unknown. We constantly face challenges in our work, many of them externally driven and without warning. As a result, we’re just preparing as a leadership team and organization to remain in the position where we can act quickly and in accordance with our values in support of our colleagues in the field.

“I’m most excited about the opportunity to lift up and further support the great talent we have at Hillel International and across the field. I’m also looking forward to making sure that we meet our student engagement goals. Ultimately, we’re here to serve students, and I’m excited to see us come together as a movement to further elevate how we engage and inspire them.” 

You’re also a singer. Tell us about the Jewish a cappella group you co-founded in D.C. What are some of your most memorable performances?

“Our Jewish a cappella group is called JewKvox, and we’ve been at it for eight years. The five of us have a passion for applying our musical interests in a Jewish context.  Fortunately, our harmony skills exceed our group naming skills.

“We got started with a performance at the bar mitzvah of our friends’ son. The bar mitzvah boy, Ben, has special needs. He invested so much of his effort and soul going through the bar mitzvah process that it inspired us to invest in creating a group and performance that would add to his simchah.

“Since that beginning, our group has performed at a variety of venues and events around D.C., large and small. We had the opportunity to perform at the Verizon Center as part of an AIPAC event, and we sang the National Anthem at Nationals Park before a baseball game. I really value the chance to be creative and have fun through our singing in a way that also feels meaningful.”

Outside of Hillel and JewKvox, how else are you involved in the Jewish community?

“As one of my most fun involvements in the community, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as lead staff for a golf ‘kishroniyah’ at Camp Ramah in New England, where my wife recently served as board president and where both my daughters are now on staff. We’re members of Beth Sholom Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Potomac, Maryland. Although we don’t identify as Orthodox, we really enjoy the vitality and ruach of the Beth Sholom community. We’ve also been involved at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School for the past 15 years (where both of our daughters attended school), with some Israel-related organizations and through the Jewish Federation. And with two daughters in college, I’m now a Hillel dad!” 


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