Hillel at the Crossroads: Accusations of Intimidation in Boston
When one speaks to Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel International, one hears a quiet voice speaking carefully and thoughtfully. Managing thousands of interconnected programs at more than 500 independent local Hillels — and walking a tightrope between a spectrum of Jewish political and religious persuasions — Fingerhut is accustomed to organizational tension and finding the middle ground.
But when Fingerhut had to answer allegations that he and Hillel International were engaged in strong-arm tactics to dominate and control independent Hillels and their boards, it struck him deeply. The accusations included bullying, intimidation, threats of defamation suits, interference, whisper campaigns and retaliation against critics, which could include punishing innocent staffers.
Moreover, the charges were broadcast to hundreds of local Hillel directors, officials and their boards in open letters and emails — primarily from officials at the Northeastern (NEU) University Hillel — calling for the removal of Fingerhut, and demanding a cessation of what was termed “intimidation tactics.” The continuing “J’Accuse” comes from Sheldon Goldman, board chairman of the local Hillel at NEU.
Goldman says that he has witnessed, for more than a year, what he called an administrative “inquisition” by Hillel International, which undermined NEU Hillel’s operations and its staff.
After months of disagreement between NEU Hillel and Hillel International, things came to a head in December 2016. A dedicated NEU Hillel staffer was told that she would receive a prestigious Hillel International award for excellence at the Hillel International General Assembly in Orlando, Florida. But then the award was mysteriously withdrawn. After numerous protests, the award was ultimately bestowed upon her last March in Washington, DC, at the AIPAC Policy Conference. That incident last December became the back-breaking straw that resulted in the NEU chapter’s well-regarded director, Arinne Braverman, resigning on the spot in Orlando.
When Goldman tried to replace Braverman with a carefully-curated Israeli Hillel staffer, Hillel International only deepened the chasm between them, reminding Goldman that the NEU chairman could not hire a replacement without Fingerhut’s personal involvement and approval, per a pre-existing procedure.
In a series of widely-distributed emails and letters, Goldman denounced Hillel International and Fingerhut for “fear-based tactics.” One such email decried: “Eric Fingerhut [attempted] to discredit me within the Boston community … and [made] threats of a defamation suit against me. These actions,” the missive continued, “shed further light on his character and are reasons why I believe he must be replaced as the leader of Hillel. This cannot be done quick enough as his character is leaching away whatever moral fiber remains at SIC [Schusterman International Center].”
In a taped interview in his office, Fingerhut passionately denied each and every charge made by Goldman. “We have many, many partners, hundreds of them, that have taken all sorts of shapes and forms,” explained Fingerhut. “That we would from time to time have a disagreement is not unexpected.” But, Fingerhut assured me, “We will get through it, we will get to a resolution.”
Showing intense resentment of the charges, Fingerhut added in a low voice: “We don’t threaten people,” adding, “that is not [what] we do.” He appended, “I have never threatened anybody.” Fingerhut bemoaned that the situation was an example of “sinat chinam” (Hebrew for “baseless hatred,” especially in the context of internal discord).
From Hillel International’s view, the bad blood with the NEU Hillel was anomalous — one negative case, out of what officials described as “a thousand positive cases” that could be found throughout Boston and the rest of the country.
But was Goldman’s experience — and are his allegations — isolated?
Fingerhut’s staff gave me the names of several Hillel directors. When queried, Columbia University-Barnard Hillel director Brian Cohen was unequivocal: “I think Eric has been a very positive leader for Hillel International. … Hillels overall on most campuses are better off today than they were two, three, or four years ago.” Cohen rejected any hint of strong-arm tactics, saying “Throughout my 15 years … I have never felt anything but support from Hillel [International].”
Aaron Weil, the executive director of Central Florida Hillel in Orlando, echoed this enthusiasm. Weil declared that Fingerhut has created “a transformative success. Since Eric Fingerhut got on board, our Hillel has quadrupled in size.” When asked about fear-based tactics, Weil ruled it out: “In my tenure since coming to Central Florida in 2013, I haven’t witnessed any heavy-handed negative policies toward specific Hillels.”
Other Hillel directors around the country were equally supportive of Fingerhut and the national organization.
But probing deeper, another perspective on Hillel International can be found throughout the Hillel community, especially in Boston. The issue that Goldman raises is not whether there will be disagreements over personnel, programs and politics — as disagreements are guaranteed in any organizational network as prodigious at Hillel. Instead, Goldman asks whether people can resolve difference without resorting to “attacks and intimidation.”
In Boston, several former Hillel staffers and volunteers feared retribution if they were to speak up to criticize either Hillel International or Fingerhut. However, a few were willing to go on the record.
One critic is Josef Blumenfeld, who has enjoyed a long career in media, education publishing and public relations. Garnering his share of awards from local organizations, he has volunteered for many Jewish communal duties and served on several boards, including regional UNICEF and AIPAC chapters.
In 2015, Blumenfeld recounts, he was asked to join Boston University (BU) Hillel’s board. “But,” Blumenfeld states, “the more I learned and scratched the surface, there were issues that concerned me greatly;” he specifically emphasized “significant financial mismanagement.” Blumenfeld added, “I could not imagine that our community would allow something as vital as Hillel to be as poorly managed and ineffective as it is.”
Blumenfeld remembers meeting with Fingerhut on June 9, 2016, at the trendy Eastern Standard restaurant in Boston to discuss the problems. “Fingerhut and I had a very loud conversation,” remembers Blumenfeld. How loud? Blumenfeld states: “People around us knew we were arguing.” For his part, Fingerhut said that he does not remember the incident.
From the uneasy restaurant encounter with Fingerhut, says Blumenfeld, relations with Hillel International only worsened and, in his view, became toxic.
To address problems and a lack of BU Hillel financial transparency, Blumenfeld participated in an August 31, 2016, conference call with the other BU board members. At the time, Sidney Pertnoy served a dual role as both BU Hillel board chairman and immediate past–chair of Hillel International’s board of directors. Pertnoy, a prominent and oft-lauded Hillel International personality, was instrumental in the hiring of Fingerhut as CEO in 2013. As the approximately two-hour evening phone call unfolded, Blumenfeld says that he was repeatedly subjected to intolerable verbal abuse. That was too much for Blumenfeld.
On September 6, 2016, Blumenfeld transmitted his letter of resignation, addressed to Pertnoy. It began: “Dear Sidney: BU Hillel is not my first experience as a board member. It is, however, the only board in which I’ve been yelled at, undermined, belittled, and had my commitment called into question by the board chair and other board members.”
Blumenfeld elaborated: “I take great pride in my leadership in a host of organizations that make up Boston’s Jewish community. Again, at no point in my history of lay leadership was I treated as unprofessionally as I was during our last board call. Even when I reminded others on the call we are all on the same side and share the same goal, I was repeatedly yelled at and my concerns were summarily dismissed.” Blumenfeld added that, “BU Hillel has abdicated its responsibility to stand up for the school’s Jewish students.”
In conclusion, Blumenfeld wrote, “I am no longer comfortable with the reputational risk associated with being a board member. Therefore, I hereby tender my resignation from the BU Hillel board effective immediately.”
Two other board members participating in the conference call, each acting independently, resigned for the same reasons. One of them, James Blankstein, recalls: “They yelled and screamed at us as though we were children, a horrible experience. … No one from the board had stood up and said this conduct is inappropriate.” Blankstein’s resignation letter asserted: “During the last board meeting, I was yelled and screamed at by Sidney when I asked about the sale of the building to BU; and I raised the issue that, without any notice to the board, the deadline had passed for us to buy the building back.”
Inasmuch as Pertnoy was a known Hillel International personality, Blankstein blames Hillel International for the entire situation at BU. “I believe,” says Blankstein, “Hillel International allowed an environment where transparency wasn’t critical.”
Blankstein wanted to talk directly to Hillel International about his experience. He states that he spoke to the organization’s board chair, Tina Price, “and sent her a copy of my resignation letter, but never got any indication that any action would take place.”
After the three resignations, Blumenfeld was surprised to see an e-mail rebuff circulated from BU Hillel board member Abby Elmore, the wife of Boston University’s dean of students, Kenneth Elmore. “After the resignations of the past two weeks,” wrote Abby Elmore, “I feel compelled to write a short response. Participation on a board should never mean that everyone is in complete agreement about decisions. … However, there is no place for … untruth. I was on the two previous Board calls, and while there was at times tension and disagreement, at no time was Sidney yelling or disrespectful.”
One of the three board members who resigned thought that he was, in effect, being called a liar by Elmore. He went so far as to contact an attorney about a defamation lawsuit, but elected not to pursue litigation.
When David Raphael, BU Hillel’s interim executive director at the time — but no longer a Hillel staffer, was contacted for comment, he stated that he would refuse to answer or even listen to any questions. He referred any inquiries to current BU Hillel executive director Jevin Eagle, who also said that he would refuse to answer or even listen to any questions. Attempts to reach BU Hillel board chairman Pertnoy were not successful.
Hillel International vice president for communications, Matthew Berger, declined to release public contact information for Pertnoy, saying that doing so was against policy. Ironically, in response to a question about another Hillel chapter several days earlier, Berger had done the opposite and provided private phone numbers and emails for two Stanford board members. Berger nonetheless assured me that he had passed on questions to Pertnoy. However, at deadline time, no response was received.
Several attempts to contact Elmore through both Hillel International and the BU Hillel executive director did not elicit a reply by deadline time, either.
Offensive phone calls such as the one claimed at BU Hillel are not unknown at Hillel International. After one reportedly verbally-abusive July 2016 phone call with a Hillel International senior official, that official received a July 12, 2016, e-mail rebuke from the person on the other end of the call: “Maybe someone has asked you to look at personal anger management issues,” asked the person in the e-mail, adding, “Hopefully, my gracious and open demeanor did not trigger these responses wherein you interpreted friendship and support for Hillel as an invitation to be vexatious.”
Another critic is Raphael Fils, a former BU student, who — years after his treatment at BU Hillel –says that he remembers virtually every email and phone call vividly. Fils, now living in San Francisco Bay, works in marketing. He says that his “mistreatment” began in early December 2014 when J Street U, the campus arm of the left-leaning J Street organization, was admitted by BU Hillel as a recognized affiliate. Like J Street, Fils also speaks of a two-state solution, but he says that his outlook is decidedly more pro-Israel than J Street. To proliferate his message, Fils started his own recognized group, called Justice and Unity in Mideast Policy, or JUMP.
Immediately after J Street U was admitted, Fils approached BU Hillel about screening the film The J Street Challenge, produced by Boston-based filmmaker Charles Jacobs of Americans for Peace and Tolerance. The J Street Challenge, which has been screened nationally, is highly critical of J Street policies and tactics. Fils’ December 10, 2014, email request to the BU Hillel event coordinator was promptly answered in a series of exchanges. “The JUMP event has been approved,” wrote then-events manager Susan Sloane, adding in follow-up communications the various rooms and dates that were available, as well as the nominal fees. The J Street Challenge was approved for a screening date of February 11, 2015.
But on February 2, 2015, Fils was surprised to receive an email from interim BU executive director Raphael stating: “We have been in touch with professionals from Hillel’s Schusterman International Center regarding the movie The J Street Challenge, and it is their position that the movie is divisive. … Therefore, we are not prepared to show this movie in the Hillel building.” The BU Hillel cancellation set off a firestorm of emails from Jacobs, Fils and even BU history professor Richard Landes. Landes asked Hillel International’s then-chief administrative officer, David Eden, point blank about the national organization’s stance on the film. In a terse February 4, 2015, reply, Eden wrote Landes: “I understand that you had a question whether Hillel International has an official position on the video called The J Street Challenge. The answer is no.”
As time was short before the scheduled screening, Fils tried to contact Eden as soon as possible to clear up any misunderstandings. Fils sent an e-mail, reading: “David, I’m disappointed I haven’t heard from you. Unfortunately, I’m very busy starting tomorrow and all weekend visiting clubs and donors for JUMP. I hope [to] speak to you next week, hopefully it won’t be too late. Raffi.” An earlier similar email had featured a smiley face.
Fils stated that he was astonished to receive a denigrating reply that seemed to portray him as “threatening” and “mentally unbalanced.”
On February 4, 2015, Eden replied with:
I find your communication to be very odd and troubling. You send me a cryptic message … and expect that I should drop everything I am doing to respond to you immediately regarding what? Who are you? What is this about? Your communication is highly unprofessional, among other things. Next, you follow up a few hours later with an email expressing disappointment because I didn’t respond to you within a few hours and then say you are too busy to talk until next week. That is also quite odd, among other things.
Your comment about next week and saying ‘hopefully it won’t be too late’ reads to me like a threat. Is that what you are doing? Is this recent email a threat? If so, why? What are you threatening to do? Do you need help? If so, let me know and I will see if we can get you assistance.
Fils replied: “David this email was not a threat. I meant too late as before the BU Hillel event. I think you’re reading too much into my messages. … I’m also very confused with your questioning of me. You asked me who I am and what this is about. David, you know exactly who I am and why I am messaging you, as you’ve talked about me with many people before. Raffi.”
Ultimately, states Fils, after more acrimonious exchanges, he was finally able to screen The J Street Challenge in a side room of the BU Hillel at a later date. However, the event went forward without official sanction or advertising.
During the early parts of the exchange with BU Hillel, Fils was so bothered that he penned an article for the Times of Israel, entitled “Why BU Hillel Has Ruined BU’s Jewish Community.” After a long list of criticisms, often citing J Street’s engagement, Fils declared: “BU Jewish students feel so disconnected from Hillel that they don’t bother to get involved, run for student board positions, or even vote; they’ve lost hope. Hillel has ceased to be [a] ‘center of Jewish campus life’ as it claims to be.” He then announced his own movement, called Save Our Hillel, a.k.a. Save BU Hillel.
Fils says that even though the episode with BU Hillel was three years ago, he still remembers it vividly as a failure of Hillel International. Like NEU Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman, Fils still feels that Hillel International could retaliate against him with a defamation suit, “But I am not afraid to stand up and speak,” he says.
Fils states that he was “flabbergasted” that a student would be treated in such a fashion. When Eden was asked if he intended to portray Fils as unbalanced, Eden responded, “Yes, that is correct,” adding, “I told him that not only in emails but over the phone … He was over the top about the Boston U Hillel.”
Both the interim director at the time, Raphael, and the current director, Eagle, stated that they would not listen to any questions or provide any comments about events that occurred during that time frame. Hillel International has generally denied any improper phone calls with Boston-area Hillel staff or students.
But not everyone with a complaint about Boston-area Hillels or Hillel International is willing to speak openly. Fearing retaliation, some will only speak on the condition of anonymity. One individual, who has collaborated closely with Hillel International for years — and now works in a coordinating position with the Birthright Israel program and local Hillels across the country — explains how the retaliation can work. “They make threats to you,” says the individual, adding that if you disagree with them, “They say they will not give [project] funding. … They threaten lawsuits.” The individual maintains that since Fingerhut has come aboard Hillel International, “Their bullying is the worst I have seen. Eric must approve everything.”
Many pro-Israel supporters have pressured Hillel International to get tough with local Hillels, in order to ensure that affiliates maintain a safe place for Jewish students and to keep anti-Israel agitators out of the buildings. Yet the criticizing individual says that the pressure Hillel International is exerting is accomplishing the opposite: “Hillel International is selling out the students. I watch International Hillel sell out the [chapter] buildings [to universities].” The individual further explains, “Once the university owns the building, there is no way the local Hillel can keep out anti-Israel students [such as Students for Justice in Palestine] because the building is now university property.”
When asked why the individual was speaking anonymously, the reply was: “I work in a program with an organization that works with Hillel every day. They would retaliate against me with my organization. One thousand percent, they would do it.”
In rebuttal, Hillel International maintains that its Guidelines ensure that chapters do not host anti-Israel activities. And, as previously noted, Fingerhut says that, “I have never threatened anybody.”
Yet some critics of Hillel International and its activities in Boston are so frightened of retaliation that they claim to lose sleep. One person who has previously worked closely with Boston Hillels — as well as senior Hillel International executives — now lives in a small town, but is employed by a local Jewish organization that shares programming with Hillel International. With 550 local chapters across the United States, Hillel International “can reach into the smallest community anywhere in the country,” this person explains.
“Hillel told us they track you even after you leave Hillel — years later — and especially when you work with other Jewish or Israel organizations,” the unnamed person states. “They could easily call your boss and put a word in, and get you fired.”
One person who provided information for this series woke up at 3 am on August 27, 2017, fearing that their identity could be revealed, triggering retaliation by Hillel International. Two hours later, that person wrote an email to this reporter with the subject line, “I really need your help protecting my identity.” The person typed: “I have a family to feed. … I’ve been up since 3 am and I can’t sleep. I am begging you — please, please don’t use my name in the article. … Please help protect me.”
The ignition for the open examination of diverse accusations of “fear-based tactics,” retaliation and bullying by Hillel International has been the campaign of NEU Hillel board chairman Goldman. He has widely circulated demands that Fingerhut resign, and that Hillel International cease what he terms “strong-arm” tactics.
In recent days, the threshold conflict with NEU Hillel has been solved. A new executive director for the chapter has been finally interviewed, approved by Fingerhut and hired. So Goldman was able to hire the recruit that the board selected. But has Goldman’s war with Hillel International come to an amicable resolution — or will it soon escalate to the next level?
Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of “IBM and the Holocaust“, “Financing the Flames,” and the “Funding Hate” series. For several decades, he has been a volunteer lecturer at Hillels across the country. Further information about any Hillel can be sent securely to [email protected].