Part 5 of Edwin Black's latest 5-part investigative series, "Hillel at the Crossroads," is based on more than 100 interviews in 4 countries, and the acquisition of many documents and internal emails. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
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 as the first order of business. 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—Northeastern University Hillel [NEU Hillel].
Before he arrived that day to assume his post as the newly hired executive director, Skolnick knew that NEU Hillel had started a firestorm in the Jewish and campus community. The 33-year-old former director of campus programming at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the pro-Israel media watchdog group known as CAMERA, was accustomed to controversy. But this was something beyond that.
Weeks earlier, NEU Hillel had gained national media and collegiate attention as the local chapter that had vociferously rebelled against Hillel International over what NEU Hillel board chairman Sheldon Goldman termed “an inquisition” of interference, retaliation, threats, and strong-arm tactics. Goldman loudly blamed Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut and his senior staff. Fingerhut and other Hillel International personalities have either denied, or refused to answer various allegations.
The protracted conflict with Hillel International, according to Goldman and other NEU Hillel staffers, boiled over last year. At the height of a disagreement between Hillel International and the NEU Hillel Board on policy, an accomplished NEU Hillel Israel Fellow suddenly found her Hillel International award for excellence inexplicably withdrawn. The award was to be conferred during a December 2016 annual Hillel International conference in Orlando.
Sensing brazen retaliation against a staffer by Hillel International for an unrelated dispute with NEU Hillel management, beloved NEU Hillel executive director Arinne Braverman decided to resign on the spot. When Goldman and his board recruited, vetted, and tried to hire a replacement for Braverman, Hillel International’s legal department notified Goldman that his chosen Israeli candidate was not acceptable to Hillel International and reminded him that no candidate could be hired without the personal vetting and approval of Fingerhut—a previously established process that Goldman defied.
An openly toxic conflict ensued. Goldman launched volleys of accusatory emails to hundreds of other Hillel executive directors and local board members across the nation demonstratively calling for Fingerhut’s termination over fitness and lack of “moral fiber.” Finally, the NEU Hillel board recruited another candidate to succeed Braverman 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 beneath the bleached stone and red brick doorway arch and opened the dark brown door to NEU Hillel as its new executive director, he knew he was walking into a roiling job challenge. He was aware 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 service, and fundraising--all neglected as the chapter had been four months without an executive director. He started just in time for Rosh HaShanah, when the Jewish New Year would require intensified outreach to NEU’s Jewish students.
No pressure. Just everyone watching every move, judging every decision.
Fortunately, Skolnick brought great skills to his NEU Hillel post. Beyond his tenure at CAMERA’s campus outreach, his resume boasted a stint in the IDF Spokesman’s office, as well as bylined articles in Jewish and Israeli media. He carried the confidence of his board as well as the required green light from Fingerhut and Hillel International.
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 and posting on a Jewish leadership listserv. But was the dispute actually done and over?
According to Goldman, the entire hiring episode only cemented his view that Hillel International had undertaken a “sham vetting process” of Skolnick simply to impose its will on a local chapter. “The fight to get Fingerhut fired and reform Hillel International,” vowed 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.”
What went wrong? Did the hiring “solution” actually substantiate complaints from across the country by Hillel students, staffers, and others in the extended Hillel community against Hillel International tactics and policies—complaints that Hillel International variously denies or declines to respond to?
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 D.C. headquarters was rigorous, according to an individual invited by Fingerhut and his staff to participate in the interview process.
That August 28, 2017, Skolnick spent all day in some eight interviews, including one with Fingerhut, according to a Hillel official aware of the process. Skolnick confided to a confidant that he was “nervous, but was treated very nice and was made to feel comfortable.”
Nearly all the interview questions were 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. 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, founder of modern Zionism. Nonetheless, NEU Hillel people believed the article was nothing less than a calculated false narrative promoted by Hillel International at time when the “Hillel at the Crossroads” series was preparing to break, and just a week after a taped August 15, 2017 interview with Fingerhut for the series.
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 completely rejected the opening sentence conclusion, “coming to a close,” commenting, “It’s important that Hillel’s half-truths be seen for what they are.” Moreover, Goldman asserted, “I never believed that if our candidate was hired, the battle was ‘coming to a close.’ Not true.”
The Jewish Advocate article also included an ambiguous derogation of the executive director from Israel 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 our interview a week earlier for this series. Goldman dismissed the disparagement against his chapter’s first choice as “character assassination of the worst kind.” Goldman continued to emphasize the integrity of NEU Hillel’s original staffing choice, calling the applicant an “outstanding candidate.” A review of emails and documents involving the Israeli candidate, obtained in Washington D.C., revealed 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 regarding 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 challenged, adding sarcastically, “But it’s in print. So, it must be true.”
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 files. But this time frame exceeded the Advocate’s deadline.
Goldman spotlighted the last sentence of the Advocate article as most telling. The Advocate’s concluding passage stated:
“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, SIC [Hillel’s Schusterman International Center] 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. With irony in his voice, Goldman asked how Hillel could undertake “a genuine vetting and reserve judgment about a candidate” until after the interviews, but then conclude in advance that “Hillel International is very pleased with the outcome.” Goldman asked, how Hillel International could, “without even interviewing Skolnick, announce that they were ‘happy that Northeastern Hillel recognized their role in finding the right candidate and were able to find somebody who is better suited.’”
The Advocate’s story was datelined August 25 for its Friday print edition. But an electronic, subscription-only version was released Wednesday morning, August 23rd. 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 text 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 logo-marked Hillel International signature ran beneath his name.
Almost immediately, Berger’s comment and the Advocate article text circulated into other listservs and email exchanges. Within about 40 minutes, it was received and forwarded by the computers and cell phones of various NEU Hillel board members. At 11:11 AM, August 23, 2017, two NEU Hillel board members forwarded Berger’s listserv post with comments suggesting a pattern of false media narratives proliferated by Hillel International.
“I can't prove it,” one NEU board member wrote, “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.)
The August 23, 2017 NEU Hillel email forwarding continued with the comment, “And here is Matt Berger circulating the article over a non‐Hillel listserv. Personally, I think it's insurance against … [the] upcoming article [Hillel at the Crossroads] … Because they're afraid of what” the series “will uncover.”
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’s efforts to object.
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 Goldman harbors against Hillel International and the tactics it is accused of. The dominant issue, believes Goldman, is not differences over personnel, politics, property, or pizza, but a belief that Hillel International employs brazen tactics when it encounters any opposition on any topic from any source.
For example, Goldman named a ranking vice president at Hillel International as the person who notified two students and a staffer at NEU Hillel that Hillel International was seeking to engineer the removal of Goldman from his own local board. Nine openly copied email attempts to secure comment from senior Hillel International officials, including Berger and Fingerhut, to respond to allegations that the SIC sought to engineer Goldman’s ouster from his local board went unanswered. Likewise, emails and several phone calls to the named vice president were not returned.
Goldman himself was repeatedly asked about the two students and a staffer who were contacted about the ouster effort, but each time stated the staffers were afraid to speak up lest they incur the wrath of Hillel International. “People are afraid of Hillel International,” explained Goldman, adding, “Their reaction is one of fear. These are young people and they have careers.”
Asked to elaborate, Goldman stated, “Because these are bad people at Hillel International. There is a legitimate concern that Hillel International staff people will try to assassinate their character without regard for the truth.”
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 holiest day of the Jewish calendar, 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.” This email was followed by another from the same writer, received just before noon, as Yom Kippur approached only hours later. “I understand,” stated the follow-up email, “that you assume that there won't be a retribution—but that assumption is wrong. They are a powerful organization and I am only one person. They know it and they use it.”
The appeals for protection were consistent with pleas from others in the Hillel community. When asked why one 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.”
Another person with direct knowledge of the Hillel International feud with NEU Hillel pleaded, “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.”
An established and well-known board member of one of the Boston-area Hillels said in exasperation, “With Hillel International, it's like dealing with the mafia.”
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, a concept painfully invoked when Jews remember the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’av).
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.
All those diverse individuals who accuse Hillel International of retaliatory tactics, undoubtedly attended Yom Kippur services. The Torah portion included Leviticus 19, Chapter 18. It sets forth the injunction from on high:
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
Either the many accusers of Hillel International--all of differing backgrounds, in different cities, associated with different local Hillels, experiencing a collection of unconnected episodes over a period of years--have grossly violated the precept of Leviticus 19, Chapter 18, or it is Hillel International that is in gross violation.
Editor's note: For several decades, Edwin Black has been a volunteer lecturer at Hillels across the country. Further information about any Hillel can be sent securely to firstname.lastname@example.org.