Adam Lehman took over Hillel International in January 2020 after spending decades as a volunteer in Jewish institutional life, serving as a board member at his synagogue and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and as a founding member of the D.C.-based Jewish a cappella group JewKvox.
He made the leap to Hillel in 2015, serving as chief operating officer until he got the top job on Jan. 7, 2020.
Now, as colleges start thinking about beginning a second fall semester amid the pandemic, Lehman spoke about how Hillel has adjusted to reality — and found new opportunities — during the past year.
You participated in Hillel as an undergraduate and today your daughters are doing the same. What’s the most important difference between your experiences?
There are a few big differences. First and foremost, we have invested in talent across the Hillel movement in a way that ensures that wherever a Jewish student is showing up for school, there’s the opportunity to have a great Hillel experience.
When I was in college, there were several campuses where you had a strong Hillel presence, but [at] a lot of schools ... the resources weren’t there, and the talent wasn’t there. We’ve now got examples like both of the schools where my daughters attend [Tulane University and Washington University in St. Louis], where you’ve got robust staff who are bringing not only passion, but real skill in how to engage every Jewish student, regardless of the background they’re coming from.
Were there things that were on your agenda for leading Hillel that you’ve had to put on the back burner because of the pandemic?
By virtue of the pandemic, we absolutely did shelve some of our aspirational growth plans. My hope coming into my role was that we could take what is already a really broad footprint, in terms of having engaged more than 140,000 Jewish students a year, to an even higher level. Our aspiration is to engage every Jewish student.
We have the happy distinction of being almost 100 years old at this point, and so one of my strategic themes coming into the job was focused on how we could enter our second century with strength and sustainability from a resource point of view. With the pandemic, we obviously reimagined, and had to shift in everything we were doing to meet immediate student needs in a very different context.
What will Hillel keep from this pandemic? And what are you happy to leave behind?
The pandemic period has given us the opportunity to invest aggressively in digital transformation in a way we needed to do, in any case, but it really accelerated our progress. And we absolutely will be continuing to invest in digital experiences, not as a replacement for in-person community building, but as a complement.
This period also led us to focus even more on cohort-based learning and engagement groups. We were able to fully transition our Jewish learning fellowship into online space, and also build up a whole series of other learning and leadership cohorts, some in person and some in digital space. Those have provided such meaningful value to students who are starved for community in this moment, and it reinforced for us that those cohort approaches can be just core to how we build community moving forward.
A big learning from the period has also been that as a movement, we can provide some experiences movement-wide that relieve the need for intensive effort on programming locally. An example of that is with the High Holidays. Many campuses were not in a position to do extensive in-person services. We created nearly 50 hours of quality video programming, covering a whole range of services and other related experiences. We had nearly 50,000 views of [the Hillel video series] “Higher Holidays” content, and it relieved campuses from the need to try, during the pandemic, to put together the full range of service offerings.
How will Hillel deal with a growing sense of skepticism toward institutions among younger people?
The current generation of young people has lived through really trying times and times that do produce skepticism about institutional life. We are a movement more than an institution. We really take seriously person-to-person engagement, and getting to know the whole student, and just being there as a resource and a partner in terms of their personal journey and their Jewish journey. And when our professionals, many of whom are young and connected to Gen Z, have the opportunity to really get to know students and be there for students, it transcends any preconceptions around what Hillel is as an institution, and provides opportunities for inspiration and transformation.
They’re showing up because they’re getting value because they realize Hillel is not about Hillel. Hillel is about them. Hillel is about their future. Hillel is about their development. And so that has helped us cut through some of the cynicism that is understandably there for this generation. JN
Jesse Bernstein is a staff writer for Jewish Exponent where this article first appeared. It is a Jewish News-affiliated publication.