A Big Mensch

Eric Fingerhut says he plans to get out to the campuses in his new role as president of Hillel.

Former Ohio congressman Eric Fingerhut, who was chancellor of the board of regents for Ohio’s state’s public universities and colleges, is the new president of Hillel.

Fingerhut was unanimously chosen by the board of directors of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life on July 14. He is expected to take the helm of the 90-year old organization in August.

Fingerhut will first meet many of the people he will be working with when he is introduced at Hillel’s annual institute on July 29 at Washington University in St. Louis. He then plans to tour some of Hillel’s key campuses in both the United States and Israel. There are Hillels on more than 550 campuses worldwide.

“My goal from day one is to make sure I get out to the campuses, meet the students and understand what Hillel needs to do every day to enhance Jewish life on campus,” he said.

“We want to be a home for students from every type of background, religious or secular. Whereever students find their connection to Judaism, we want to help,” Fingerhut said, adding he understands “the campus is full of choices — sports, social action, Greek life, arts and, of course, schoolwork. Our model is not to compete but to complement and support all those interests. And we do.”

Jason Benkendorf, executive director at American University’s Hillel, said he is “really excited to see what changes are in store over the next year few years.”

Benkendorf, who said about 700 Jewish students participated in at least one activity at his Hillel this year, believes the organization “is going to continue to evolve as a movement,” and he called Fingerhut “the perfect person” to lead that growth and help “maximize our impact.”

“I have heard exceedingly good things. He has a tremendous reputation in the Jewish community,” Benkendorf said.

Ari Israel, executive director of Hillel at University of Maryland, College Park, also is looking forward to welcoming Fingerhut.

“He comes across as a very big mensch, a person with integrity. He seems to have the right credentials and also the right track record,” said Israel.

Israel said Hillel has two main functions, to help college students on their Jewish journey and to represent Judaism on the college campus. He expects Fingerhut to “rally our forces” and bring prestige to the organization.

“We are sort of unknown,”Israel said.

In a video, Fingerhut called Hillel “a crown jewel in the Jewish community. It’s entrusted with our most trusted resource, our young people.” He said he was looking forward to being involved in engaging and inspiring debate “so the Jewish values come alive every day.”

Fingerhut said there is a direct correlation between involvement with Hillel as a college student and engagement in the Jewish community as an adult.

“Hillel is not just for the campus. It’s for the community and it’s for all of us, the entire Jewish people,” he said.

Sidney Pertnoy, chairman of Hillel’s board of directors wrote in a press release, “Eric is an ideal fit for Hillel at this important time in our history. He has a passion for Hillel’s mission and a proven innovative record of successes in both the public and private arena. We are confident Eric will be an excellent leader so we can better engage the Jewish world’s most precious resource — over 400,000 Jewish students on college campuses in North America and the hundreds of thousands of Jewish students and young adults in communities around the globe.”

Fingerhut, 54, whose parents are first generation Americans, is the
immediate past president of Agudas Achim in Columbus, Ohio. He serves as chair of the Jewish education and Identity committee of the Columbus Jewish Federation.

Prior to become CEO and president of Hillel, Fingerhut was corporate vice president of Battelle’s Education and STEM learning business and was an Ohio state senator from 1991 to 1993 and from 1999 to 2007. He was a U.S. congressman from 1993 to 1995 and the Democratic Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate in 2004.

Fingerhut holds a law degree from Stanford University in California and a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in Illinois. He is married to Amy Fingerhut. They have two sons, Sam and Charlie.

Fingerhut takes over from Wayne Firestone, who left the organization last year. Under his leadership, Firestone tried to bring more Jewish
students into Hillel houses.

Hillel is partially funded by numerous foundations and receives money from the National Federation-Agency Alliance, a coalition of 29 federations, which gives $1 million to the national organization and about another $15 million to local Hillel foundations.

Suzanne Pollak writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

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