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After Lengthy Search for Leader, Hillel Chooses a Youthful Insider

March 20, 2006
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After a search of more than three years, the largest Jewish student organization in the world has a new president. Wayne Firestone, 42, a former attorney, academic and longtime Jewish community professional who has been executive vice-president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life since last September, was tapped last Friday to replace the group’s interim president, Avraham Infeld.

The promotion, which was announced by the board of directors’ nominating committee, will become official after a vote of the full board in two weeks. Firestone would take the helm of Hillel, which is represented on 500 college and university campuses around the world, on Sept 1.

So how is Firestone planning to celebrate? On Sunday morning he was to grab a hammer and some nails and hop a plane to Gulfport, Miss., to join 750 Hillel students spending their spring break helping to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s our largest alternative spring break project ever,” Firestone said last Friday in a phone interview with JTA.

“It’s the real manifestation of what” Infeld “came in to do, when he started speaking the language of tzedek,” or social justice, Firestone said. “We’ve always been doing it in small pieces, but 9/11, and then the tsunami and Katrina, brought a different level of understanding that there are people out there who need our help and attention.”

That energy, passion and focus on expressing Jewish identity through righteous action are typical of what Firestone brings to an organization that has been aggressively repositioning itself on campus.

The organization’s focus used to be getting Jews together, as represented by its old motto of “doing Jewish with other Jews.”

Now the emphasis is more universal — on helping students develop Jewish identities within the context of their larger society — and non-Jews are welcome to participate.

Firestone doesn’t shy away from criticizing himself or the organization. He says his greatest challenge will be “breaking through the stereotypes,” such as the “student perception of clique-iness, a lack of openness” at Hillel.

“We need to be forthcoming about that and address it,” he said.

Hillel needs to abandon “self-defeating attitudes,” Firestone said, such as the assumption that religious and secular kids won’t hang out together, to focus on finding common interests that students can rally around, while maintaining their diversity.

“We need to say, ‘We’re this colorful, loud, challenging, innovative place on campus, come be a part of us.’ It’s the exact opposite of when I was in college, when everyone was trying to look less Jewish, to assimilate,” Firestone said.

“Today there’s a desire to define yourself as you choose. This will be an important wave for us to ride as we reintroduce ourselves to the community and to young people.”

Noting that today’s college students, members of a group sociologists call “the millennials,” are proud of their Jewish identity but leery of institutional affiliation or organizational life, Firestone pledged that Hillel would continue to evolve and experiment to meet their needs, rather than “impose an agenda” on the students.

“We’re not asking them to be a member of anything. We’re saying, ‘Here we are, ready to listen and be part of your lives,’ ” he said.

It’s all part of the group’s new five-year plan, which Firestone helped develop as staff director of the organization’s Strategic Planning Committee. Major goals are doubling the number of students Hillel reaches and creating a $100-million endowment.

The selection committee felt Firestone’s work in planning Hillel’s future direction put him in a strong position to implement the new vision.

“We are thrilled to see Wayne assume the presidency of Hillel,” said Lynn Schusterman, a vice chairwoman of Hillel’s International Board of Governors. “He’s a talented administrator, a strong leader, a visionary and a real Hillel success story, having risen through the organization from student activist to top professional. He’ll do an outstanding job.”

Firestone joined Hillel in 2002 as executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a partnership of Hillel and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The ICC, formed at the height of the Palestinian intifada, was tasked with improving Israel’s image on college campuses and combating anti-Israel agitation.

Firestone’s on-campus Israel work is one of his major strengths, observers say.

“Wayne has an instinctive feel for the Jewish community and its many organizations, and a very keen understanding of the Israel-Diaspora relationship,” said Jonathan Kessler, director of leadership development for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Kessler, who led missions to Israel for college students with Firestone, said Firestone was able to balance Israel education and advocacy.

“He just has a magnificent rapport with students,” Kessler said.

Dana Raucher, executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, who was on the board’s nominating committee, said: “Wayne reflects Jewish values in his life, family and his professional career. He knows how to lead with a grace and style that is very unique.”

An attorney by training, Firestone worked as a high-tech executive in Israel following a 1995-1998 stint as an administrator and lecturer at Haifa’s Technion–Israel Institute of Technology. He headed the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel office for a year before joining Hillel in 2002.

Firestone is lauded for his extensive experience in Jewish communal work, as well as his long history with Hillel, dating back to his days as a student activist at the University of Miami.

“He knows Hillel as well as anyone coming in, certainly better than the other candidates,” said mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a vice chairman of Hillel’s board. “He’s familiar with the system, he’s committed, intelligent, he’s attractive and he’s got great motivation to do the job.”

At the same time, Steinhardt said he is concerned about Firestone’s relative youth, saying the new position “is a major step up in responsibility and complexity. It’s a very public position.”

“I hope he has the breadth to do it,” Steinhardt said.

Firestone is stepping into the large shoes left by Hillel’s longtime former president, Richard Joel, who served from 1988 until 2003, when he left to become president of Yeshiva University.

Infeld, an Israeli and longtime Jewish educator and leader, took over as interim president, a title that was extended in 2004 but still was known to be a temporary post.

In his first seven years, Joel virtually transformed Hillel, quadrupling its budget and getting new funding from the Schusterman and Steinhardt foundations, and securing Hillel’s independence from its parent organization, B’nai B’rith.

Firestone will be held up to that impressive yardstick.

Several top Jewish professionals turned down the job over the past few years, and the organization publicly relaunched its search last year.

Firestone’s expertise and experience lies more in programming than fund raising, but he says his appointment does not signal a turn away from the continued need for fund raising.

He’ll focus on “identifying new money,” Firestone said, appealing to a new generation of donors that hasn’t been giving heavily to Jewish causes.

(JTA Staff Writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this story.)

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