Eric Fingerhut, who led Hillel International for five years, has been hired in the same role at Jewish Federations of 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.”
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.”
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. Then-president and CEO Jerry Silverman announced in April 2018 that he would be stepping down after a decade at the helm to spend more time with his family.
From early on, Shapira said in a statement, “It was clear that [Fingerhut’s] 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.”
Washington, D.C.-based attorney Stuart Kurlander, a member of the search committee, first met Fingerhut in high school, as members of the Conservative 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 America.”
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.
Fingerhut’s time at Hillel, as much as it will be remembered as 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 campus 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 canceled 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.
Now, as the president and CEO of JFNA, Fingerhut will overseeing an organization that governs 147 Jewish federations and 300 communities beyond that, with a budget that dwarfs that of Hillel.
Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia CEO Naomi Adler lauded the choice.
“We are absolutely delighted to learn Eric Fingerhut has accepted the position of president and CEO. Under his stewardship at Hillel International, our local Philadelphia-area Hillels flourished and thrived, providing excellent Jewish education, leadership and engagement opportunities for thousands of students,” she said. “While we welcome the opportunity to partner with Eric in this new role, we sincerely thank Jerry Silverman for his years of leadership and exemplary service, in particular for his work to create a lasting and influential network of Jewish Federation volunteers and community leaders.”
Wishfully, this gentleman might attempt to bring the overall mindset of all Federations as close to the political center as possible, many of which are now leaning toward the proverbial left, if we have any chance to gain a foothold in order to return our very beautiful country to a more realistic sanity.