After nearly six years at the helm of GW Hillel, Dr. Robert Fishman announced last week that he plans to leave his position as director in August to focus on fundraising for the organization.
Many members of GW’s Jewish community said they consider Fishman – who they call “Rob” – a mentor who has profoundly impacted their lives and shaped their college experiences.
“Rob created a warm, vibrant and diverse Jewish community that, after four years at GW, became my family,” senior Eric Gallagher said. “It was Rob that encouraged me to go to Israel with Hillel my freshman year. I took his advice and I’ve been back five times since. Rob played an instrumental role in my development of a positive Jewish identity.”
Although Gallagher said he came to GW a wary secular Jew, Fishman encouraged him to become involved in Hillel. With a group of friends, Gallagher co-founded GW Acting Politically for Israel. Last year, GAP Israel was given the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Duke Rudman Award, the highest honor given to one of the country’s 400 pro-Israel campus organizations.
Students interviewed said that Hillel’s welcoming environment and variety of quality programming is largely due to Fishman’s unique blend of enthusiasm, humor and hard work. They said he encourages students to plan programs themselves, but always keeps his office door open for those seeking his guidance.
“I’ve tried to give students a sense of empowerment to learn how to run programs and become leaders in their own right,” Fishman said.
Senior Andrew Klein worked at Hillel for two and a half years and continues to be involved in the organization. He said that Fishman’s effectiveness comes from his warm personality and natural ability to connect with people. Klein credits Hillel’s success with reaching a broad number of students to Fishman’s leadership style.
“Rob is just like a kid, but has had all the experience of someone who has been there,” Klein said. “He is not the kind of mentor who tells you what to do. He is more like a guide than a boss. Anything from personal problems I’ve had to broader questions on life, Rob has always found the time to talk to me.”
Fishman said he strives to make Hillel a community in which students can find everything from an outlet to practice their religion, to a way to become involved in politics and community service, to just a place to socialize. He estimates that 40 to 50 percent of the undergraduate Jewish population participates in at least one Hillel program during the school year.
“We try to create an open and welcoming environment that invites in all kinds of people,” Fishman said. “It is not meant to just be a place for religious kids to hang out.”
Although students say Fishman is irreplaceable, they are optimistic that Hillel’s progress will continue with the next director. Fishman said he will step back to allow the new person to get acclimated and pursue his or her own ideas.
“The tone is always set by the person in the position of authority,” Fishman said. “As I look back and feel good about some of the things that I have accomplished here, I still want to give the new person every opportunity to have their own vision. I hope that some of it or much of it will build on what we have accomplished here.”
Student Association Executive Vice President Jason Lifton, who is on the search committee for the new director, said that more than half of Hillel’s operating budget comes from fundraising.
Lifton said that the director position is sought after because of GW Hillel’s strong national reputation, adding that the committee is looking for an outstanding person who will be in tune with the atmosphere on campus. Lifton emphasized that Fishman is not leaving GW, just serving in a different capacity.
Looking toward the future, Fishman and the students said they would like to see Hillel continue to reach more people and build its presence in D.C. and the national Jewish community.
“For me, the most amazing aspect of this job has been working with students and developing relationships with students one on one,” Fishman said. “I see them come in as kids, as freshmen, some of them scared, not knowing what to do and where to go, and I see them go out as adults with a real sense of direction and purpose.”