Eric Fingerhut Leaving Hillel, Moving to JFNA

(JFNA photo)

Eric Fingerhut, who led Hillel International for five years, has been hired in the same role at Jewish Federations on North America. And Mark Wilf, JFNA’s board chairman, hopes his new CEO will bring “energy and imagination” to the umbrella for local Jewish federations.

Fingerhut, 60, “spearheaded transformational change at Hillel,” Wilf said in a May 16 statement announcing the hiring. Fingerhut will take charge at JFNA on Aug. 6. Referring to Fingerhut’s work at the Jewish campus organization, Wilf said “he took a 90-year-old organization and made it new again.”

Wilf did not respond to several requests for comment.

Tina Price, chair of the Hillel International Board of Directors, said in a statement, “During his time with Hillel, Eric guided us through an ambitious strategic plan, focused on building the best talent in the Jewish world, and measuring our engagement to ensure excellence on every campus. We are excited to continue partnering with him in his new role.” Price, too, could not be reached for further comment.

Fingerhut, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio who once ran for the Senate, oversaw a period of tremendous economic growth at Hillel. During his tenure, Hillel’s annual revenue expanded from $90 million to $200 million and, according to Hillel’s announcement, he “revolutionized the development of talent across the entire Hillel network,” which includes 550 campuses in 18 countries.

The search for a new president and CEO of JFNA began about a year ago, according to Strategic Task Force Chair Cindy Shapira. From early on, she said in a statement, “It was clear that his experience and talents were a one-to-one match to JFNA’s strategic priorities. He has a demonstrated track record in instituting data-informed decision making, a record in transformative talent development, as a cultural change agent and a keen visionary on how to educate and engage the Jewish future.”

Stuart Kurlander, a member of the search committee, first met Fingerhut in high school, when both were members of the Conservative movement’s USY youth movement.

“We met up again when he arrived in Washington as a member of Congress,” Kurlander said. Fingerhut represented Ohio as a Democrat from 1993 to 1995. “His exemplary and visionary leadership of Hillel, which was marked by impressive fundraising results and advocacy for Israel on college campuses, along with his lifelong commitment to Jewish life and values will prepare him well for his new position as president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North American.”

(Kurlander is a member of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes the Baltimore Jewish Times.)

In a statement, Fingerhut said, “Never did I imagine that… I would have the opportunity to lead a Movement that has impacted my life and so many others. It has a rich history, and I believe it can have an even more impactful future. I am excited to take on that challenge.”

Through a Hillel spokesman, Fingerhut declined to be interviewed for this article.

Fingerhut’s time at Hillel, as much as it will be remembered for being a period of growth, is also indelibly marked by skirmishes with liberal and left-wing Jewish students. Fingerhut came to Hillel International in late 2013, and within months, the student board of the Swarthmore Hillel declared that it would not abide by Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, which prohibit speakers who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and profess to not being Zionist. Eventually Swarthmore Hillel split from Hillel. Far from ending the controversy, Swarthmore’s Hillel became the first of a handful of campuses Hillels to declare themselves “Open Hillels.”

The guidelines also had the consequence of a former speaker of the Knesset being barred from speaking at Harvard Hillel in 2014.

The next year, Fingerhut cancelled a meeting with 1,000 pro-Israel students at the J Street conference, because the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator was speaking elsewhere in the conference center.

Fingerhut met with the students months later, but the essential character of the conflict between an increasingly progressive faction of students and Hillel International had become more or less set in place.

Since the beginning of Fingerhut’s tenure, BDS activity has only increased in prominence, both on and off campus. Now, as the president and CEO of JFNA, he’ll oversee an organization that governs 147 Jewish federations and 300 communities beyond that, with a budget that dwarfs that of Hillel.

“Eric brings more than an impressive resume,” Wilf said. “A CV can’t convey the character of a person. What did we learn about Eric through this process? We saw a man with a commitment to Jewish life and values. Someone with a compelling vision for a Jewish future.” JT

Jesse Bernstein is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of the JT.

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