Edwin Black for Respvblica | September 16, 2017 | Part 1 of a continuing series
When Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut stands at the window of his curved corner office at the organization’s Washington, DC headquarters, he looks down on a streetscape dominated by Chinatown and its Friendship Arch. But Fingerhut’s domain extends far beyond anything the eye can see — to the four corners of North America, and beyond.
With 550 North American campus affiliates and 56 affiliates overseas, Hillel International is arguably one of America’s largest and most far-reaching Jewish organizations, dwarfing a combination of other major Jewish groups.
From its humble roots in 1920 at Texas A&M University, and then its formal creation in 1923 at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Hillel has risen to become the tip of the spear in the battle for Jewry’s future. That battle is now being waged at the frontline of the conflagration — the college campus, where the fractal of antisemitism and anti-Zionism morphs daily.
The name Hillel stands for one thing: the next generation. Yet, the organization, which sports a $126.4 million-dollar budget and is staffed by approximately 1,000 employees, is greatly misunderstood.
Hillel International gets blamed for many things that happen at its local affiliates. Every time that a local Hillel hosts a controversial event — such as the screening of Nakba films in 2016 at the Brown University Hillel, or a Columbia University Hillel special presentation with Breaking the Silence (a group that the Israeli government has often criticized) — Hillel International contends with vociferous public and private complaints.
In truth, most people don’t fully understand that Hillel International has not been a monolithic campus organization with carefully-controlled chapters at hundreds of colleges. Instead, its model has been closer to that of Marriott International, which licenses local hotels on the condition that the local branches maintain certain standards of service and quality.
Similarly, Hillel International licenses its name and logo, and provides certain services and programs to its various independent local chapters. These chapters are generally incorporated as separate local foundations, each with separate local boards. Each affiliate has a highly localized constituency and set of challenges. While local Hillels are networked together in one identity, they are, in fact, independent corporations that agree to agree … until they don’t.
So misunderstood is Hillel International’s legal separateness from its local affiliates that many people don’t even know the organization’s real name. Official emails from Hillel staffers are commonly signed with the emblematic Hillel International logo, and sometimes with the name of the headquarters building — the Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center.
While the organization’s website abundantly speaks of Hillel International, its legal name is hard to find. Nowhere in its 2015 Annual Report did the legal name of the organization appear, not even on page 38 above the financial data, where the legal name should be printed.
Instead, the legal name on page 38 was misidentified as “Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center,” which is the building’s name. In mid-July 2016, repeated attempts to confirm the entity’s true legal name with Hillel officials went unanswered, with one key official finally responding, “Let me get back to you.”
Only days later — and after numerous requests — was the legal name finally confirmed in writing as “Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.” That name matches the organization’s IRS filings. Following last year’s inquiries, the legal name was added back into the organization’s 2016 annual report.
At the same time, a simple search of Charity Navigator reveals scores of other foundations with an identical or similar name — all local Hillels, from Staten Island to Los Angeles, and all points in between.
No wonder Hillel International gets blamed for every misstep of any local Hillel.