Expanding Hillel’s Impact to Germany

Students supported by the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Scholarship Fund
Students supported by the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Scholarship Fund

By Eric Fingerhut
special to eJP

As I boarded a flight to Berlin earlier this month for a truly historic moment in modern Jewish life, I couldn’t help but wonder what the parents and grandparents of today’s Hillel students would think of my mission: To dedicate and launch a Hillel movement in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Hillel International has been expanding into new countries regularly. Most people don’t realize that we operate in more than a dozen countries on five continents in 18 time zones.

A few months ago, in Moscow, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hillel in Russia. In Central Asia and Southeastern Europe, Hillel staff work with thirteen Hillels in six countries, including Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia, where Hillel is thriving and transforming lives.

But for Jews, Germany is different.

It has to be and probably always will be different. In the shadows of the Shoah, we dared not dream of a Germany with Jews or a vibrant Jewish life again.

There is a hunger for precisely that and today’s global Hillel offers a place to engage with Judaism and the Jewish community, wherever it exists. We certainly could not have imagined that one day, the world’s largest pluralistic pro-Israel Jewish campus organization would be welcomed and celebrated by the German government and civil society.

Jewish life in Germany is blooming. Berlin is now one of the world’s most innovative cities with a growing Jewish presence. Now Jewish students in Germany heading off to pursue higher education can be assured of having a Jewish home away from home to engage in programming with other Jews.

Thanks to the early work of the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Scholarship Fund (ELES), a partly government-supported operation, 300 Jewish German students were receiving monthly stipends, grants, and Jewish-oriented programming and services.

Hillel International worked diligently for several years to establish a transformative new partnership with ELES to amplify and accelerate this work. Thanks to this alliance, Hillel resources and programs are now available to the hundreds of ELES scholars and thousands of other Jewish students, many of whom were born in the former Soviet Union or are first-generation immigrants to Germany, and other German-speaking countries in central Europe.

Unlike in the United States, where Hillel is closely affiliated with specific college campuses, in Germany, Hillel will serve as a central station, or hub, within various cities for the community as a whole. We will build smaller micro-communities throughout the country to create Hillel-style programming. In Switzerland, Hillel will be based in Basel, where in 1897 Theodore Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress, and Vienna will be Hillel’s central address in Austria.

ELES scholars will initially staff the new Hillel hubs. To prepare them for their new responsibilities, a dozen ELES scholars traveled to Washington University in St. Louis last August to attend Hillel Institute where they connected with other students, learned best practices from our professionals, and took back to Germany the ideas, energy and training to engage other young adults in Jewish enrichment. In the future, Hillel International will implement national seminars and conferences for the German hubs, as well as training seminars for student leaders.

In the first year of this new venture, Hillel International expects to serve at least 1,000 students in Berlin, Potsdam, Heidelberg, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Cologne. For the first time in their formative college years, Jewish students will have access to opportunities to form deep, personal connections to Jewish life, learning, and Israel. They will also be able to meet Jewish students from other countries to create trans-national bonds in this mobile age. Creating relationships and moments that help build strong and lifelong connections with Judaism and with the global Jewish community is a significant goal for Hillel International’s foray into Germany.

Expanding Hillel’s impact on the Jewish community into Western Europe is key to the future of the global Jewish people. But no matter where we go, the Hillel experience remains the same: pluralistic, open, pro-Israel, and proudly Jewish. I’m certain those who built Hillel’s heritage starting more than nine decades ago would be enormously proud of this new chapter in our organization’s life and what it says about the global Jewish people’s resilience. At Hillel, we work every day to build the future of the global Jewish people.

Hillel’s President Emeritus, Avraham Infeld, likes to say that Jews do not have history, we have memory. In Germany, Jews have history and memory. And now Hillel is there to build a Jewish future as well.

Eric Fingerhut is the president and CEO of Hillel International.