(January 16, 2020 / JNS) Hillel International announced Adam Lehman last week as its new president and CEO.
Lehman, who has held the interim CEO position since July 2019, previously served as the organization’s chief operating officer for four years. He succeeds Eric Fingerhut, who stepped down in June to become CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Lehman, 52, and his wife, Belinda, have two daughters who are both in college.
JNS talked with Lehman in person on Jan. 13. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What are your goals as the new head of Hillel? How will you decide differently from your predecessor?
A: In terms of my goals moving forward, there are four key priority areas: to strengthen Hillels across the Hillel movement, and continue investing in talent and education; to go further to connect our movement around the world, moving forward with new student leadership, as well as a new volunteer leadership center to bring together lay leaders who work with us on campus; to secure resources so we can fuel the growth and sustainability of our movement into the next 100 years (our centennial is coming up in four years); and finally, to make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect Jewish student communities on campus through addressing changing dynamics, including the rise of anti-Semitism.
Q: Speaking of anti-Semitism, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is still a major issue for Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus. How is Hillel working to support pro-Israel students and fight BDS?
A: We couldn’t be more resolute and committed at this point in terms of addressing ongoing issues of BDS and anti-Israel activity on campus. We have invested over the last several years in a program called the Israel Action Program that allows us to partner with all the other Israel engagement and pro-Israel advocacy groups that work on campus to support students and to support Hillel professionals. We are hip to hip with a focus on supporting our professionals and our students every time that BDS pops up on a campus.
Q: Hillel has been criticized for conservative tactics in fighting BDS. For example, JNS has reported that the Hillel at Wake Forest University in February 2019 told pro-Israel activists to “lay low.” What are Hillel’s tactics going to be under your leadership in fighting BDS?
A: Like all organizations addressing this challenge, we have experimented with and pursued a wide range of tactics—all with the goal to be supportive of Jewish communities on campus and to honor the role that Israel plays within our mission. Our professionals are working tirelessly with students to be supportive of students. It doesn’t mean every situation is going to involve a shared perspective between the student and the professional. At the same time, it is also the case that there’s consistency in our goals and in our passion to address these issues.
Q: Jewish students come from a wide variety of religious and political backgrounds. How can Hillel remain an inclusive environment for students, while also drawing red lines on anti-Israel groups?
A: One of my core priorities heading into this next phase of Hillel’s work is to ensure that we are as diverse and inclusive as we can be—as diverse as the students we serve. We will continue to lead the way within the Jewish community in terms of being a pluralistic, big-tent organization. We also have our core values and our vision is built around ensuring that every Jewish student has the opportunity to develop an enduring commitment to Jewish life and learning in North America and Israel, and that embodies certain values and principles that will continue to define our position and our organization.
Q: Where do you draw the lines between being critical of Israel and being anti-Israel?
A: We’ve got a fairly clear set of guidelines that identify groups that are in favor of the delegitimization or destruction of the State of Israel, and our policy is not to partner with those organizations.
Q: Any examples of those organizations?
A: Examples are the ones we all see day to day. Obviously, Students for Justice in Palestine, but there are many others that have unfortunately confused the goals and purposes of Zionism and the State of Israel with their own political agendas. We support and respect every student, every group’s rights to have its views, but our policies and principles on this issue are very clear.
Q: Is J Street U—the college and university campus organizing arm of the left-leaning Jewish organization J Street, one that calls itself pro-Israel—one of those groups, considering that it doesn’t oppose BDS resolutions?
A: J Street U is an organization that is present on a lot of campuses, and we look pragmatically at every program as its proposed and support our colleagues in the field in terms of determining what is acceptable relative to guidelines and what is not.
Q: Does J Street U fit Hillel’s guidelines?
A: J Street U, to my knowledge, is not on record as supporting the delegitimization or destruction of the State of Israel. Again, we look at case-by-case programs and organizations, and try to make a determination of what fits within our parameters.
Q: J Street U has associated with anti-Israel causes including IfNotNow.
A: When an organization is aligning with an anti-Israel organization and trying to bring that anti-Israel organization to campus or into Hillel, then that does, in fact, cross the lines of our policies, and we work with local colleagues to try to ensure that we’re standing by our policies and our principles.
Q: What other challenges do you see facing Jewish students beyond BDS?
A: There is right now a growing challenge and, even arguably, a crisis around mental health and wellness that affects Jewish students, as well as all students. We at Hillel are investing into innovative programming to support students as their whole selves and really address the challenges that students face when it comes to mental health.
Q: How does Hillel plan to tackle that issue?
A: We’ve begun to create wellness centers within Hillels. In some cases, those centers are even employing full-time social workers. We’ve created the first version of that at the University of Southern California (USC) Hillel, which is launching this year.
Q: How would wellness centers differ from mental-health centers on college campuses?
A: We’re very much aware of the fact that we aren’t experts when it comes to mental-health services, and that there are many other key resources that students should be turning to. As such, we serve more as a first entry point in terms of recognizing issues and challenges for students, working with them to connect to professional resources that may be available elsewhere.
Q: What about the issue of access to kosher food, and other needs and services for Jewish students?
A: Hillel has been the central address for dealing with all types of Jewish issues, including food issues related to kashrut and issues of observance to ensure that students can fully observe in connection with their Jewish faith without being penalized at an academic level. And that includes creating a campus climate where Jewish students can feel comfortable and proud to be Jewish.
Q: What role does Hillel have in combating the tide of intermarriage?
A: Hillel plays the most fundamental role when it comes to creating new avenues for Jewish identity-building that specifically address the changing Jewish community. There’s no question that the Jewish students of today are different than the Jewish students of prior generations. Through our presence, we work with students to co-create new approaches that engage them and that inspire them. Some of those, have included our Jewish Learning Fellowship, which is now the largest student-facing Jewish educational program on campus, as well as our Israel engagement programs, which last year alone, engaged more than 127,000 Jewish students.
We also continue to invest in core programs that have worked for decades like Birthright, where we remain the largest recruiter for Birthright in the 18-to-22 segment.
Q: In an era of increasing pressure on Judaism, what role does Hillel play in strengthening Jewish identity?
A: As Hillel not only serves undergraduates, we’re also increasingly serving graduate students on many campuses, and we also are innovating the way we are in which Hillel shows up on campus and communities.
For example, we’ve opened a dozen Base Hillels centered in urban environments that specifically cater to students who may not be either attending traditional academic institutions or doing so in ways where they have access to a traditional Hillel.
We’re also increasingly adapting our Hillel model to meet the changing demographics of where students are showing up when it comes to the university landscape. Jewish students are increasingly attending community colleges, as well as commuter colleges, and we’ve begun to really strengthen our presence in markets such as Los Angeles with Hillel 81A, Miami with Florida International University Hillel and Chicago with Hillel of Metro Chicago.
Q: What is your vision on the future of Hillel in a rapidly changing Jewish landscape?
A: I look forward for Hillel to embrace our unique opportunity and responsibility to build a dynamic and thriving Jewish future. We’re better positioned than any organization to work with young people around the world, and excite and inspire them in terms of their Jewish identities, and do so in a way that meets very specific interests of Gen Z students who are, in fact, different from prior generations.
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