New Director, New Direction at UMBC Hillel

For Jeremy Fierstien, it is the diversity in Baltimore’s Jewish community that he finds most appealing. (Provided)

For Jeremy Fierstien, it is the diversity in Baltimore’s Jewish community that he finds most appealing. (Provided)

Jeremy Fierstien, 33, originally pursued rabbinical school for selfish reasons — he wanted to affirm his own Judaism. But about halfway through his tenure at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, he decided he could use the rabbinate as a vehicle to make sure more Jews grew up with positive Jewish experiences that Fierstien felt were lacking in his small hometown of Bradley Beach, N.J.

As the son of a congregational rabbi in a predominantly Italian Catholic and Irish Protestant area, growing up practicing Judaism was a conflicting ordeal. His close non-Jewish friends would happily accommodate him on Shabbat, but in school, teachers told him “all the non-Jews are out to kill you,” Fierstien recalled. “It just didn’t compute.”

His path led him to Hillel, where he found a “we’re all in it together” mentality toward Judaism that appealed to him more than congregational life. And with Hillel he’s stayed; he took over as executive director of Hillel at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, on July 1.

“Right when I figured out that there were a lot of values and lessons that I was taught as a child in school that did not agree with the experience that I had at home, I started to rebel and break out of the roles that I was put into,” said Fierstien. “I love being a part of a community, but being a congregational rabbi was never my bag. To me, it is more important to lead from within. Congregational life comes with the baggage of ‘rabbi on high, Jew in the pew,’ and I am much more into the leadership model of grassroots organizing and learning together.”

Since taking up his new role, Fierstien has been active in both getting to know members of his community and expanding the opportunities for Jews and non-Jews alike to participate in constructive Shabbat experiences.

For example, Fierstien helped to start a weekly kabbalah Shabbat experience in which students are led in meditation, reflection and song. “We really just have an end-of-the-week cap to lead into a more Shabbat feel after a week of classes ends. We have anywhere between 10 to 25 students attend any given week, which is really exciting because this is not something that we have offered before to such an extent.”

Once a month, UMBC Hillel also hosts a partnership Shabbat, where it joins other student groups and organizations on campus for programming. Most recently, Hillel hosted the Catholic Retrievers for a game of Jeopardy and an educational Shabbat dinner.

“The vice president of our student group, who also is an intern, has been focusing on creating as many partnerships with student groups as possible,” Fierstien said. “The goal is to have a free campuswide seder, which I have already gotten the vice president of the university to buy into. We want to have all of these partners to cosponsor the event with us and the Office of the Vice President to have a mock seder leading into Passover to capstone the year of partnership.”

Fierstien has also been working with another intern to focus on social justice through education and create a lecture series about social justice that will serve to educate the community and address systemic issues related to whatever topic is chosen at each lecture. Opportunities will also be provided for students to volunteer in the Greater Baltimore community as well as at UMBC.

“I want to be able to teach the skills and facilitate the opportunities for my community members to lead and run the show, with myself and my staff as a resource more than anything else,” said Fierstien.

Part of why Fierstien was drawn to Hillel was that it enabled him to serve more as a resource than as a peer.

“It is very hard to navigate the relationship as a congregational rabbi when you become friendly with the people who also technically sign your checks,” he said. “The sense of professional separation is a very welcome change for me. I think lines can be fuzzier when you are really living and working with a community to the extent that a congregational rabbi is.”

Fierstien came from the Hillel at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where there was a tight but tiny Jewish community. In Baltimore, he’s found the inspiration that first drew him to the organization.

“I think the diversity found in the Jewish community here in Baltimore is really appealing and provides an incredible opportunity for learning and growth for everyone involved,” he said. “With the diversity and strength of the community, it really feels like everyone is in it together.”

Alternative Break in Kiryat Gat: Aryeh’s Story

Group shotUniversity of Maryland sophomore Aryeh Kalender from Fairfax, VA, blogged after spending a week in Israel on an Alternative Break trip with Maryland Hillel and Yahel. While there, students worked with the Ethiopian Israeli community to build community centers, gardens and more. Students stayed with Ethiopian host families as part of the experience.

The Day After
I’m sitting around the apartment in Katamon, a neighborhood in Jerusalem. It’s nearly 11:30 in the morning and I’ve only recently woken up. No 6:45 alarm followed by six exuberant and excited children running around the house yelling. No 8:00 a.m. meeting time at a nearby high school. No morning bus rides in a mini bus to a farm on the outskirts of the city. No digging soil, wrapping tires or cement making. No, today is very quiet.

I’m back in the Israel I grew up in. The one that involves much less Hebrew and relaxing wonderful morning’s with amazing grandparents. The one without six children running around literally jumping on top of me. And yet, even though this Israel is the one I am most used to, the aftereffect of 10 days of hard work, and harder reflection can be one of longing. Longing for the hectic atmosphere the engulfed my life for a short period of time. That is the picture of the “other” Israel.

As I reflect on the past 10 days living in the Kiryat Gat among the Ethiopian minority, learning their story and empathizing with the fight they wage every day to become assimilated into Israeli society without losing their heritage, I cannot help but feel as if I’ve just passed through a rainstorm. A million different perspectives were thrown at us from trips near the Gaza strip, to Ethiopian deputy mayors, to our host families. And now suddenly it’s all over. Or at least, it is for now. Because what would these experiences mean if they were just fragments of time. Each experience that I and the rest of our group had translates into a different part of our lives, whether it is a personal transformation, or an outward change that we can bring back to share with the people around us.

I’ve learned a lot from this Hillel trip. The potential for changes is always around us, as in our wonderful world, nothing is ever, or should be perfect. But sitting in front of the computer now, ideas are constantly racing through my mind of how to make a difference and bring about change. I cannot wait to bring what I’ve learned back to the University of Maryland Jewish community.

Hillel Taps Eric Fingerhut, Former Congressman, As CEO And President

Eric Fingerhut, a former U.S. congressman and leader of Ohio’s system of public universities and colleges, has been tapped to serve as the next president and CEO of Hillel.

Fingerhut’s hiring was approved Sunday in a unanimous vote by Hillel’s board of directors during a meeting in New York. He comes to the international campus organization after serving most recently as a corporate vice president at Battelle, a Columbus-based independent research and development organization.

Fingerhut was an Ohio congressman in 1993-94.

“I am honored to be joining such an esteemed and important organization,” said Fingerhut, 54, in a statement released by Hillel. “Everything in my life has led to this moment — my public service, my work on campuses and research centers across Ohio, and my lifelong devotion to Israel and the Jewish people. And so I could not be more thrilled.”

Hillel boasts a network of 550 branches at colleges, universities and communities in North America, Israel, the former Soviet Union, Europe and Latin America. While most of the branches operate independently, the central Hillel organization, based in Washington, plays a lead role in setting strategy for the movement and raising money to create and help implement new strategies at the campus level.

Under the guidance of Fingerhut’s predecessor, Wayne Firestone, the organization adopted a new strategic plan focused on reaching Jewish students who rarely, if ever, frequent Hillel houses. When Firestone announced his decision last year to step down as leader of the organization, Hillel board members said the next president and CEO would need to focus on securing new funding sources to fund the strategic direction.

Sidney Pertnoy, chairman of Hillel’s board of directors, issued a statement saying that “we are confident Eric will be an excellent leader so we can better engage the Jewish world’s most precious resource — over 400,000 Jewish students on college campuses in North America and the hundreds of thousands of Jewish students and young adults in communities around the globe.”

Fingerhut, who is set to start in August, also issued a video statement in which he pledged to follow the lead of Hillel the Elder, for whom the organization is named, noting his reputation as Judaism’s most inclusive rabbinic sage.