Hillel at 90: The Jewish Campus Umbrella’s Past, Present and Future

by Alina Dain Sharon

When recent rabbinical school graduate Rabbi Benjamin Frankel began a part-time clerical position in 1923 working with students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), little could he have imagined that within less than a century, the small Jewish student program would balloon into a national and international organization with a presence at 550 colleges and universities.

Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life is celebrating its 90th anniversary this month, the organization confirmed. Under its first full-time national director, Abram L. Sachar, Hillel grew from a primarily religious organization to a center of cultural Jewish learning at a time when Judaism was still viewed with suspicion in academia, and when the existence of Jewish students on American college campuses was relatively new.

“In this dynamic and global environment, our young people will go off and pursue careers and opportunities all over the world, but the one time and place when we have the greatest critical mass of the future of the Jewish people is during the college years,” current Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut, who assumed the position this summer, told JNS.org.

Wayne Firestone, Fingerhut’s immediate predecessor and current president of the Genesis Prize Foundation, told JNS.org that Hillel is a “shining example in American Jewish life on why and how higher education has been good for Jews and why Jews have been good for higher education.”

While continuing to foster a community for American college students, Hillel also involved itself over the years in international causes such as bringing Jewish student refugees to the U.S. on education scholarships, freeing Soviet Jewry for emigration, and growing support for Israel, especially in the wake of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

In the late 1980s, Hillel underwent another transformation under the directorship of Richard M. Joel, who led the effort to “recognize the growth of Jewish life on campus and to greatly expand together with some extraordinary Jewish philanthropists the footprint of Hillel, to build the physical infasctructure of Hillel, and to enable to reach the campuses where a large percentage of our Jewish students are,” Fingerhut said.

Hillel became an independent nonprofit organization in 1994 and eventually adopted a “big tent” policy to repesent its philosophy of inclusiveness. If in the early years Hillel had to find a way to hold minyanim across the Jewish denominations in the same venue respectfully, more recently the organization had to find ways to welcome students from homes with one Jewish parent or Jews who define themselves as part of the LGBTQ community.

In 2002, Hillel partnered with The Jewish Agency for Israel to create its Center for Israel Affairs. Among its Israel-related activities, Hillel organized events, brought experts to speak on campuses, and trained students in Israel advocacy. Hillel also became involved with Taglit-Birthright Israel, bringing more than 10,000 Jewish students to Israel in the first three years of the program alone.

Via The Jewish Agency, Hillel also began to invite young Israelis to spend one or two years working at local campus Hillels in leadership roles. Today, 58 Jewish Agency Israel Fellows to Hillel serve 67 North American campuses, according to Hillel.

“It’s really hard for people to embrace governments or ideology, and yet to embrace a specific person who has a real narrative… makes it much more difficult to demonize Israel if you’ve actually met an Israeli and you see them as a human being,” Firestone said.

Few people can attest to the success of the Israel Fellows program more than Erez Cohen, the current director of UIUC’s Illini Hillel, who served as an Israel Fellow at the same campus from 2009-2012.

“What I learned most of all [as an Israel Fellow] is that there isn’t one category of the most successful Jewish student. We need to to reach a lot of tastes by a lot of people,” Cohen told JNS.org.

Of the 10 students who worked with Cohen directly on events and activities during his first two years as a fellow, today one works at a Hillel and another works for a pro-Israel organization. Three others have since made aliyah, one works for the Israeli consulate in Chicago, and the rest are also involved in Jewish organizations.

Yet Hillel’s work to connect American Jewish students with Israel has not come without controversy, often relating to the questions surrounding the group’s “big tent” policy.

Hillel’s official guidelines state that the group will not “partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers that delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel.” But a student campaign, Open Hillel, was recently founded by students who feel excluded from Hillel because they believe their critical views about Israel are not accepted. Open Hillel held its first national campaign meeting in September.

“There’s a difference between a big tent and an open tent,” Firestone said. “We’ve never claimed that anything goes inside Hillel… To hold out to any individual student the notion that [he/she] would be welcome is separate from saying what kind of programs could be co-sponsored at Hillel or in collaboration with Hillel.”

Others have raised concerns about the need for Hillel to enforce its official guidelines on Israel amid anti-Israel activity on some campuses.

“Contrary to some reports that anti-Israel activity is all but non-existent, there are real problems on many campuses, with groups and speakers – and sometimes faculty members – spreading falsehoods about Israel,” Aviva Slomich, director of student programming for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, told JNS.org in July. “For that reason the role of Hillel leaders in educating and protecting impressionable students is essential.”

Fingerhut said, “There’s no question that Hillel loves Israel, Hillel is a pro-Israel organization, Hillel is about building Jewish identity… and at the core of Jewish identity is that Israel is the home of the Jewish people.”

Apathy about Israel and Jewishness in general is another issue that many campus Hillels encounter, said Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation since 1992. Nevertheless, she said after graduation many students who had participated in Hillel, especially those who went on a Birthright trip with Hillel, continue to engage with their Jewish communities.

“I hear back from alumni and am just blown away with what they’re doing,” Blumenberg told JNS.org.

The key to Hillel’s success has been changing its roster of options as the students change, Blumenberg said. Since 2008, students have been heavily focusing on professional opportunities and academics in an effort to secure jobs despite the recession. The Arizona Hillel has been particularly focused on helping students build their resumes and find internships, and making them feel confident of finding post-graduation employment.

UIUC’s Illini Hillel also started Hire U, a student initiative dedicated to providing professional development to college students from a Jewish perspective. On Oct. 10, the program brought Phyllis Tabachnick, managing director at J.P. Morgan and co-chair of The Hillels of Illinois, to speak about the long-term benefits of her involvement in the Jewish community and in business.

The Hire U event was also attended by Fingerhut, who at a later reception for the Jewish community of Champaign, Ill., presented Cohen with a plaque celebrating Illini Hillel’s 90th anniversary.

“I think that the fact that Hillel was born at [UIUC] is not accidental. I think that our campus has been over many years pioneering in a lot of things. That hasn’t changed. When the Israel Fellows project started, our Hillel was one of the first to get a fellow,” Cohen said.

Though it may have begun as a small organization at the UIUC campus 90 years ago, Hillel has also branched out to more than 55 international centers in Israel, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Russia, and Former Soviet Union (FSU) nations. In 1994, Hillel opened its first branch in Moscow with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Schusterman Foundation. There are currently 18 Hillels in Russia and the broader FSU region.

Universities in the FSU aren’t based around campuses, so Hillel branches in the region are more central and community based, said Yasha Moz, associate director of Hillel’s international operations.

“It’s a little like a JCC for students,” Moz told JNS.org.

More than 14,000 people are now registered in the FSU Hillel database. Hillels in the region sent 1,000 students on Birthright trips this year, a number that has doubled since 2010, Moz said.

Firestone is hopeful that Hillel’s global presence “will be better known and more embraced,” but Hillel “will need to continue to innovate in order to be relevant, to understand and to be an authentic dialogue with the young adults that are on campus today,” he said.

Fingerhut wants Hillel to be as proactive and creative as possible “to make sure our programs are in fact linking this generation of Jewish students to Jewish life, learning, [and] Israel.”

“We’re up to the challenge,” he said.