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October 11, 2017 2:41 pm

Hillel at the Crossroads: Feud Resolution or Escalation?

avatar by Edwin Black

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The Northeastern campus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This article is the final piece in a continuing series. Click here for Part IPart IIPart III, and Part IV.

At about 5 AM on September 20, 2017 — before the sun rose over the Boston skyline —  Gilad Skolnick tumbled out of bed.

He hadn’t slept much the night before — the sheer excitement of starting a major new phase of his life weighed on his mind. He dressed and then, as usual, stopped at the gym. By 8:30 am, Skolnick had tucked his white shirt into his khaki pants, emerged from the gym filled with anticipation, and made his way to 70 Saint Stephen Street — the offices of the Northeastern University Hillel (NEU Hillel).

Before he arrived that day to assume his post as the new executive director, Skolnick knew that NEU Hillel had started a firestorm in the Jewish and campus community. The 33-year-old was the former director of campus programming at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the pro-Israel media group known as CAMERA. As such, Skolnick was accustomed to controversy. But this was something beyond that.

Weeks earlier, NEU Hillel had gained national media and collegiate attention over its attacks on Hillel International — and the organization’s leader, Eric Fingerhut. NEU Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman blamed Hillel International and Fingerhut for “an inquisition” of interference, retaliation, threats and strong-arm tactics. Fingerhut and other Hillel International personalities have denied many of these allegations.

The disputes between the two sides have been covered extensively in previous articles in this series. One particularly acrimonious dispute arose over who would become the new executive director at NEU Hillel — especially after Fingerhut rejected an Israeli Hillel staffer that Goldman initially wanted for the position. Finally, the NEU Hillel board recruited another candidate — and agreed to allow the newly chosen candidate to be personally interviewed and vetted by Fingerhut. That candidate was Skolnick.

On August 28, 2017, Skolnick was interviewed and immediately approved by Fingerhut. The formal press announcement was circulated on September 5.

Around 9 AM on September 20, when Skolnick walked up the three grey concrete steps to NEU Hillel’s front door, he knew that he was walking into a roiling job challenge — and that the hiring process had been the center of a communal maelstrom. But Skolnick was determined to stay above the vortex, avoid the turbulence and stick to his mission of rebuilding NEU Hillel programming, attending to student services, and focusing on fundraising. He was starting just in time for Rosh HaShanah, when the Jewish New Year would require intensified outreach to NEU’s Jewish students.

Fortunately, Skolnick brought great skills to his NEU Hillel post. Beyond his tenure at CAMERA, his resume boasts a stint in the IDF Spokesperson’s office, as well as bylined articles in Jewish and Israeli media.

So, was the public feud between NEU Hillel and Hillel International over  — a fleeting disagreement now resolved? Hillel International Vice President for Communications Matthew Berger certainly tried proliferating that view by messaging local Boston media sources and posting on a Jewish leadership listserv. But was the dispute actually finished?

For Goldman, the entire hiring episode only cemented his view that Hillel International had undertaken a “sham vetting process” simply to impose its will on a local chapter. “The fight to get Fingerhut fired and reform Hillel International,” vows Goldman, “has only begun.” Goldman added that while he went along with the interview process, he was intent on hiring Skolnick “regardless of any decision by Fingerhut or Hillel International.”

Skolnick repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this series, and refused to confirm or deny any information about his vetting at Hillel International. However, by all appearances, Skolnick’s vetting at Hillel International’s Washington, DC, headquarters was rigorous, according to an individual invited by Fingerhut and his staff to participate in the interview process.

On August 28, 2017 — according to a Hillel official aware of the process — Skolnick spent all day in some eight interviews, including one with Fingerhut.

Nearly all the interview questions were apparently about Skolnick’s ability to work with people of different backgrounds. “Politics was never mentioned,” according to an individual aware of the interviews, “however, politics was the elephant in room, even if invisible.”

Such controversial groups as J Street and the New Israel Fund were not mentioned. The fractious episodes with Goldman were not mentioned. Indeed, Goldman’s name never came up, according to the Hillel source. Instead, all the interviews were about Skolnick’s “ability to work with different players,” the Hillel source stated.

But Goldman asserts, “Hillel International was just going through the motions. There was no real vetting. In his view, the decision was made in advance to approve Skolnick,” just to dissipate the conflict.

As proof, Goldman points to an August 22, 2017, article in Boston’s Jewish Advocate. The article quoted Berger, featured a large picture of Berger, and mixed Berger’s direct quotes with negative remarks made against the original candidate blocked by Hillel International — attributing those negative remarks to an unidentified Hillel “source.”

The Advocate is among the most respected Jewish newspapers in America, founded in 1902 by Jacob de Hass, personal secretary to Theodor Herzl. Nonetheless, NEU Hillel staffers allege that the article was meant to attack them and generate support and sympathy for Hillel International and Fingerhut.

The August 22 Jewish Advocate article opened with the sentence: “As students prepare to come back to campus, an internal battle between Northeastern University’s Hillel and Hillel International appears to be coming to a close.” Goldman, as previously stated, doesn’t see his battle as being over — even close to it.

The Jewish Advocate article also included an ambiguous derogation of the executive director from Israel that was originally chosen by Goldman, but blocked by Hillel International. The Advocate article stated, “The source said the candidate did not measure up to Hillel International’s standards, but could not comment on why the former employee no longer worked for the organization, citing personnel practices. The source added that Northeastern Hillel was aware of the candidate’s previous employment and knew why the governing board could not move forward.” The newspaper published no simultaneous rebuttal from the blocked candidate in Israel.

The unsubstantiated remarks by the unnamed “source” derogating the blocked Israeli candidate were almost identical to comments made by Hillel International officials during my interview with them a week earlier for this series. Goldman dismissed the disparagement against his chapter’s first choice as “character assassination of the worst kind.”

A review of emails and documents involving the Israeli candidate, obtained in Washington, DC, reveal a personality conflict and complaints of bullying by Israel Hillel management. Fingerhut sits on the board of Israel Hillel, but he would not comment on the record about the blocked candidate.

The Advocate added an additional derogation by “the source”, this one of Goldman’s widely-circulated allegations to other Hillel chapters about bullying by Hillel International. The Advocate stated, “‘This kind of call for Hillels to up and rebel against Hillel International doesn’t make a lot of sense,’ the source said. ‘That’s why really nobody responded to him.’” Goldman reacted with indignation to this statement: “How would they know?”

Goldman was emailed for comment at least twice by the Advocate, but he was traveling in Europe at the time. He asked to respond fully a few days later when he returned to his office. But this time frame exceeded the Advocatedeadline.

Goldman spotlighted the last sentence of the Advocate article as most telling. The Advocate’s concluding passage stated that, “’Hillel International is very pleased with the outcome,” the source said. ‘Happy that Northeastern Hillel recognized their role in finding the right candidate and were able to find somebody who is better suited.’”

To this, Goldman observed, “There is no rigor in their process. It is about control,” adding, “At the time of this quote, [Hillel International] had only received a resume. They never met him [Skolnick]. The meeting was the following Monday. And they did not conduct a background search. Yet they knew they were going to hire him? Fantastic!”

Goldman was not alone in seeing the irony of a seemingly careful and methodical search process — with the outcome announced in the media and on a leadership listserv before the first interview with the candidate.

The Advocate’s story was datelined August 25, for its Friday print edition. But an electronic, subscription-only version was released on Wednesday morning, August 23. At 10:24 am, minutes after that early Advocate version was released — and without the knowledge of the Advocate editor — Berger posted the URL followed by a full cut-and-paste of the entire Advocate story on a diverse Jewish leadership listserv with the following introduction:

Subject: Northeastern Hillel

Dear Friends, I know several of you were interested in developments at Northeastern Hillel. I am happy to say the Northeastern Hillel board submitted a new executive director candidate, and we expect to interview him in the coming days. More information is below. Thanks, Matt.

Berger’s official Hillel International signature ran beneath his name.

“I can’t prove it,” one NEU board member wrote in response, “but it’s very typical of Hillel International to plant a story like this to discredit the local Hillel leadership, as they did … [in the case of] BU Hillel with the Boston Globe article.” (The referenced Boston Globe article described a rosy “renaissance” at BU Hillel, never mentioning the ongoing crisis over multiple BU Hillel board resignations, complaints of abusive treatment by staff leadership and turbulence over the chapter’s building and finances.)

Nine openly copied email attempts to secure comment from senior Hillel International officials, including Berger and Fingerhut, to determine the role of its media department in the Advocate and Globe stories, went unanswered. Similarly, there was no response to nine openly copied email attempts to secure comment from senior Hillel International officials, including Berger and Fingerhut, regarding the unnamed “source” of published remarks in the Advocate that disparaged both the first intended hire of NEU Hillel, and of Goldman.

The tumult surrounding the blocking of NEU Hillel’s first choice for executive director and the hiring of his subsequent choice are just one part of a palette of objections that Goldman harbors against Hillel International. The dominant issue, Goldman says, is the belief that Hillel International employs brazen tactics when it encounters any opposition on any topic from any source.

When asked for an opinion, a Greater Boston-area Hillel staffer with direct knowledge of the NEU Hillel imbroglio declined to comment, citing fear of upsetting Hillel International, adding, “I might feel more comfortable in a year.”

One former senior Hillel individual, not now living in Boston but with direct knowledge of the NEU Hillel conflict, provided voluminous details, emails and documents about the actions of Hillel International staffers. Yet on September 29, 2017, the morning before Yom Kippur, the former senior Hillel individual wrote in an email, “Do [not] mention my name. That is very risky for me. He [a named person at Hillel] is already after me trying to sabotage and interfere with my life.”

I received similar emails with others who gave me information for this article series. For example, another person with direct knowledge of the Hillel International feud with NEU Hillel wrote to me: “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.”

In a taped interview, Fingerhut denied diverse allegations that he or his organization engage in threatening or retaliatory behavior. Showing intense resentment of the charges, Fingerhut rebutted in a low voice, “We don’t threaten people,” adding, “That is not how we do.” He appended, “I have never threatened anybody.” Fingerhut especially bemoaned “sinat chinam” (Hebrew for “baseless hatred,” especially in the context of internal discord).

That said, Fingerhut and various senior Hillel International officials declined to respond to, clarify, or deny various specific allegations forwarded to them in more than 18 emails, openly copied.

Either the many accusers of Hillel International that I spoke with — all of differing backgrounds, in different cities, associated with different local Hillels — have grossly distorted the truth, or it is Hillel International that has done so.

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 hillel-info@edwinblack.com.

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