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Hillel’s Interim President is Asked to Extend His Stay

Hillel is asking its interim president to stay on as head of the international Jewish campus organization, JTA has learned.

Avraham Infeld, a longtime Israeli educator, was hired for one year in May 2003 after Richard Joel left the helm of the organization to become president of Yeshiva University.

Now, after less than a year as interim president, Infeld’s job rating is so high he is being asked to stay on.

“Avraham has done an outstanding job all around — not only as a leader, but inspiring the organization on all levels, on being a sound administrator, on having that wonderful word ‘vision,’ and he has been a remarkably pleasant surprise,” said Michael Steinhardt, co-chairman of Hillel’s board of directors. “There’s an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that he’ll be with us for some time longer.”

When Joel left Hillel last spring, the group was saddled with the task of finding a successor to someone whose charisma and vision had transformed Hillel from an image of humdrum campus chapels into vibrant campus communities. Joel turned Hillel into one of the most respected American Jewish organizations.

Joel’s departure also came as campuses became one of America’s main battlegrounds for public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A range of Jewish groups, some that previously had little to do with students, rolled out campus programs aiming to morph ill-informed Jewish students into Zionist activists.

Hillel was thrust to the forefront of the crusade to give Jewish students an education on Israel in the face of Palestinian rhetoric.

Infeld was asked to fill the post when Hillel’s top choice at the time, Jevin Eagle, the Boston-based senior vice president of the office-supply giant Staples, turned down the position. According to sources close to the process, Eagle didn’t want to relocate to Hillel’s Washington headquarters.

Now after an extensive search process, Hillel’s search committee has unanimously recommended that Infeld stay on. It could not be confirmed how long the tenure would be, but some sources suggested it would be at least two years.

Infeld was in Israel this week and could not be reached for comment. According to one insider, he was considering the matter with his family before making a firm commitment.

The Hillel board is expected to embrace the recommendation wholeheartedly.

Infeld, who moved to Israel in 1959 from his native South Africa, has a long history in the field of Jewish and Zionist education. Before signing on full-time at Hillel, he was Hillel’s Israel-based counsel for Jewish affairs.

He was the founder of the pluralist Melitz Center for Jewish Zionist Education in Israel and he helped direct the planning process for birthright israel, the program providing free trips to Israel for 18- to-26-year-olds who have never before been on a peer educational trip to the Jewish state.

He served as director-general of the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Jerusalem-based center for Jewish education, and Gesher Educational Affiliates, which promotes religious-secular dialogue.

In an interview in August at Hillel’s annual Charles Schusterman International Student Leaders Assembly, Infeld said he was committed to a maximum of 14 months with Hillel.

Asked if he would stay longer, he said, “My grandchildren wouldn’t let me consider it,” but he also has hinted that he would consider it.

In an interview with JTA last August, he expressed frustration with trying to make serious changes at Hillel while he was playing an interim role, which he said is a “caretaker” position. Among changes he said he was seeking was to strengthen the ties between the national and field offices.

“The organization was so busy going through the revolution of the kind of organization that dealt with the uncool kids and had a bad image,” he said, that not enough attention was paid to coordinating methods and messages among those in the field.

Infeld also said he wanted to “strengthen the connection between Israel and Hillel — not for the political sense of Israel advocacy,” but by instilling students’ connection to the land through study in the Jewish state.

“Richard Joel already won the revolution, and now is the time to stabilize the organization,” he said last summer.

Speculating about what qualities he would like to see in his successor, Infeld said then that the person should have the magnetism that can “inspire Jewishly” and the business skills to “lead a management team.”

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