Adam Lehman attended Dartmouth College in the late 1980s and his experience with the campus Hillel Jewish student center influenced him more than most. Decades later, Lehman, 54, is the CEO of Hillel International, the umbrella for campus Hillels.
“There’s no question that my experience with Hillel as an undergraduate reinforced and supported my decision to join Hillel as a Jewish communal professional,” Lehman said. “I also knew from my own experience just how transformative a positive Hillel relationship could be in changing a person’s trajectory in life both Jewishly and broadly.”
He was appointed CEO right at the start of the pandemic in 2020, after being chief operating officer since 2015. He said the opportunity to work with Hillel allowed him to “bring together my personal passion for Jewish life and community building with my professional background.”
His position has even lead him to reconnect with an impactful figure from his time at Dartmouth College, Rabbi Michael Paley, Dartmouth’s Jewish chaplain. Lehman said that it’s been a full circle moment to be able to work with someone who helped him navigate his college years.
“Rabbi Paley and I were just together on the board of trustees for Hillel Poland,” said the Potomac resident who is a member of Beth Sholom Congregation. “He has dedicated his life and career to growing Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. So we’ve had the chance to work together in a completely different way decades later.”
Much has changed on campus since Lehman’s days at Dartmouth, and this is something that he has noticed while working with Hillel.
“It was a comfortable time to be Jewishly involved,” he said of his time in college. ”That said, the opportunities for direct involvement in Jewish community, Jewish ritual, Jewish service and even Israel engagement was pretty limited. If you flash forward to the 2020s, in some ways it’s an amazing time to be a Jewish student on campus. There are tremendous opportunities to engage in Jewish life regardless of your background or what your passions and interests are.”
Despite a greater sense of community, the campus environment can be hostile for Jewish students. In a recent survey, the ADL and Hillel found that antisemitism last year was the highest recorded on college campuses.
“Even during a largely virtual school year, we saw a large increase in anti-Zionist attacks and antisemitic attacks. People who were focused on leading attacks on Jewish students and Jewish communities just became creative in how they went about doing so,” Lehman said.
Hillel, in a response to this online hate, launched the #Ownyourstar campaign on Instagram to encourage young Jews to shine bright and post pictures wearing their Stars of David.
“Instead of simply getting into fights with people who were just relentless in their antisemitism, we decided to focus on how to model Jewish pride for young people. So the entire campaign was designed to enable young Jewish people to “wear their Jewish pride,” literally,” Lehman said.
Hillel is coming up to a big birthday. The 2023-2024 academic year is the organization’s centennial.
“For Hillel, even though we are nearly 100 years old, we are committed to staying as young as the students that we serve,” he said.
The Jewish community as a whole has a duty to help support college students as, Lehman said.
“College experience has particular relevance within the Jewish community. It is one moment when virtually all young Jews are coming together in a focused way, right before they scatter to the wide world. So it provides opportunity to the Jewish community to be of tremendous support and meaning to those students,” he said.
When these students feel attached to their college Jewish communities, and build bonds such as the one he built with Rabbi Paley at Dartmouth, they might later go on to positively impact the Jewish community at large, he said.
“It becomes a critical time for those Jewish students to feel connected. If they feel connected and have that relationship that I had with a Hillel professional or with another student that they met through Hillel, they will continue to be Jewishly involved for the rest of their lives and will actually serve as leaders throughout the community.”
Conversely, Lehman pointed out that if Jewish students don’t make that crucial connection, they won’t be as inclined to participate in Jewish life.
“If we drop the ball as a community and don’t pay attention to Jewish students during this critical time,” he explained, “we are going to see an erosion of the Jewish community over time.”