“We welcome every student. We love them. We embrace them.”
So said Eric Fingerhut, who just four months into his job as president and CEO of Hillel International is embroiled in a debate about how far Jewish students can push the limits of Israel discussion from within the Hillel tent.
“Any student that doesn’t feel welcome, that is our failing,” Fingerhut added.
Fingerhut, 54, was speaking from his home in Columbus, Ohio, just 150 miles from where he was born and raised in Cleveland. Since taking over as leader of the Jewish campus organization from Wayne Firestone at the end of August, Fingerhut has had to fight two fires related to the Israel debate on campus.
First there was the decision by Harvard Hillel to withdraw from co-sponsoring a talk by Avrum Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, not because of Burg’s views but because the event was also co-sponsored by Harvard College’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee. (Harvard Hillel organized a separate, private event for Burg instead.)
The following month Swarthmore College’s Hillel student board voted to defy guidelines on campus Israel activities and declared themselves the first “Open Hillel” in the country.
The showdown on a small liberal arts campus, which seemed to pit free speech against Jewish communal skittishness regarding Israel debate, drew a less-than-flattering December 28 article in The New York Times.
This has frustrated Fingerhut, who arrived at Hillel with strong pro-Israel bona fides. As a Democratic Congressman from 1993 to 1994, he co-sponsored several pro-Israel bills, including a 1993 law that sought to break the Arab League boycott of Israel.
He also has the kind of background that ought to appeal to younger, liberal college students. He comes from a staunch Democratic household; his aunt was a union organizer. When he was 15, Fingerhut lost his father.
During the late 1980s, Fingerhut was a chair of the watchdog group Common Cause Ohio. In his first term as an Ohio state senator, from 1991 to 1993, he “worked on recycling, clean air, campaign finance reform, and gun control,” according to Kurt F. Stone’s 2010 book, “The Jews of Capitol Hill.”
Although this is Fingerhut’s first foray into Jewish professional leadership, he points out that he has been president of a conservative synagogue in Columbus, Agudas Achim, and a lifelong supporter of Israel. Fingerhut attended Hillel as a college student at Northwestern University and later at Stanford University, where he studied law.