Jewish students today have a more complicated relationship with Israel than previous generations, so more than ever they are looking to Hillel for substantive educational experiences. That’s just one of the challenges facing new Hillel International board chairman Skip Vichness that would not have been a major concern for many of his predecessors. But it’s one he’s well prepared for.
The New York City resident, who spent more than two decades in the Garden State and is a past president of Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange, views Hillel as the logical next step in the work he has pursued throughout his life, in both Jewish summer camps and education. “I’ve been trying to create a positive Jewish identity for young people in schools and camps,” he told NJJN in a telephone interview. “The last chance to do that is on college campuses.”
He embraces Hillel’s role as ministering to the needs of every Jew on campus, across the denominations, regardless of their positions on Israel, whether they are gay or straight, black or white, observant or unsure what kashrut is. He even uses his own shorthand: “every.”
“We’re there for every Jewish student,” he said. “And I will tell you that that resonates for me so much — that commitment to ‘every,’ that pluralistic approach, that whoever comes through our doors, reaching out to every Jewish student is really important, because you never know who they are or what they’re going to be … Hillel has to be and is a home for every one of them.”
Vichness is a former president of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and ran Harbor Hills Day Camp in Mendham for 20 years before becoming an investor in summer camps. He also served a stint as associate director of Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. For 22 years he lived in New Providence and then South Orange, first joining Congregation Ohr Shalom – The Summit Jewish Community Center and then Congregation Beth El in South Orange; his wife taught in the Cranford high school division of what was then the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, now called GOA.
But Hillel International is a much larger organization than those Vichness has worked or volunteered for in the past. And it’s had its share of controversy.
In a conversation with NJJN, Vichness, who succeeds Tina Price, talked about the challenges ahead, including providing Israel education, combatting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, meeting the needs of students raised in dual-faith households, confronting mental health issues, and even dealing with food insecurity on college campuses.
His most critical short-term challenge is finding a successor to Eric Fingerhut, who stepped down earlier this month as president and CEO of Hillel International, a position he’d held since 2013, to lead the Jewish Federations of North America. Vichness said he hopes to see a new CEO in place by December. Lee Dranikoff of Short Hills is another Garden State resident on the Hillel International board.
Vichness spent five years on the board (three as vice chair), during which Hillel faced significant issues regarding Israel, often in the form of BDS — the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Anti-Israel sentiment coming from students and even faculty members at times crosses into anti-Semitism on many campuses, some of which have successfully passed resolutions in favor of BDS.
Hillel, of course, opposes BDS, as does Vichness. “At its base, it’s anti-Semitic,” he said.
He believes that combatting it requires serious Israel education that goes beyond savvy rhetorical quips and some pro-Israel propaganda flyers. “We’re in the process of increasing the bandwidth of Israel education on the international level to be able to give students a fulsome view of Israel in all its complexity,” he said. “That’s what students want and expect.”
Many Jewish students, according to Vichness, arrive on campus with an affinity for Israel but little knowledge, and Hillel is trying to educate them. But it’s not an easy topic to cover. “A complicating factor is how quickly the issue of Israel moves,” he said. “We are working hard developing curricula and resources for local Hillel directors so they can give more sophisticated and nuanced view.”
Hillel also works with students with a deeper background in Judaism, many of whom come from day schools and yeshivas, who experience “cognitive dissonance” when they arrive on campus, Vichness explains, because what they hear from other students — often hostility toward Israel — is vastly different from what they are used to. It’s another area Hillel is working to address, Vichness said.
In recent years Hillel has come under fire for its policy of not supporting or partnering with organizations that don’t support Israel as a democratic state of the Jewish people. This generation of students has a more complicated and conflicted view of Israel than their predecessors, and on some campuses students have called for an “Open Hillel,” a movement which rejects Hillel International’s Israel-friendly requirements, in favor of “constructive disagreement,” and “inclusive Jewish communities,” according to the Open Hillel website.
Vichness is not a fan.
“We’re entitled to have a point of view and beliefs about our baseline support of Israel,” he said. “We will accept any student, but we are comfortable drawing the line on Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.” His wife, Ilana, is Israeli, and they have a home in Jerusalem and co-own with her sister another one in Tel Aviv.
Fingerhut had a policy of vetting new executive directors, in part to ensure a positive perception of Israel. Vichness said he supports that approach and expects it to continue. Asked if every Hillel chapter must support Israel, Vichness said, “I hope every Hillel does believe in Israel … I can’t believe any does not support Israel.”
Vichness makes a point of promoting Birthright Israel, noting that Hillel is its “largest provider” of students, and he’s equally quick to criticize attendees who disrupt the trips to compel the organizers to focus more on the plight of the Palestinian people.
“Trying to change the experience they sign up for and haven’t paid for — that’s not the right way,” he said. For those inclined to see Israel from a different perspective, Vichness suggested they consider the J Street-sponsored “Let Our People Know” trip that launched this summer. “Students come in all stripes. I say the more the merrier. I am not afraid of students being exposed to Israel.”
Despite all the attention toward Israel on campuses, Vichness said anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not always the biggest issues facing Hillel directors across the country. Instead, he said, it varies from campus to campus. While Israel education occupies plenty of bandwidth at Hillel, other issues affecting campus life in general have become increasingly important, including students’ mental health. Pointing to the rising numbers of college students seeking help for anxiety and depression, Vichness said Hillel is contemplating hiring mental health professionals.
“It’s a frightening issue on college campuses, and colleges are woefully behind,” he said, adding that often students feel more comfortable asking for help at Hillel than at a college health center. “It’s hard for students to walk into a mental health clinic and ask for help,” he said. “It’s easier to come to Hillel.” Currently, staff help connect students with the right professionals, but Hillel International is beginning to provide training to its employees.
“Any issues that affect the campus affect us,” Vichness said.
Food insecurity, not on his radar just a few years ago, is now becoming more of a priority. “There are kids who are hungry,” he said. Vichness recalled having a lunch meeting with five people at a Hillel and “they put out enough food for 30 people.” He couldn’t understand why until the director explained, Vichness recalled, “As soon as you leave, our students are going to come in with Tupperware. At every meeting we have, we serve food. And we always have extra because many of our students take it home with them. They have a shortage of food.” This Hillel, Vichness has learned, was not an outlier.
“Lots of Hillels make sure to feed kids pretty frequently and not charge — and not just on Friday nights,” he said. Some Hillels across the country have food pantries, and most directors are becoming “increasingly conscious” of the issue.
Hillel International serves more than 115,000 students with a $48 million budget and 140-150 employees. That’s a lot of responsibility for Vichness.
“Hillel is not as easy as camping, but it’s an opportunity to play on a bigger palette,” he said. “I am very worried about the future of the Jewish community, and this is a place where it plays out in important ways.
“It’s our last bite, really getting them to have that strong Jewish identity.”