Metro

Boardroom to bimah

As a college student, Jevin Eagle considered entering rabbinical school, but he deferred his calling.
Photos by Craig F. Walker/Globe staff
As a college student, Jevin Eagle considered entering rabbinical school, but he deferred his calling.

When Jevin Eagle was a senior executive at Staples, the office supply company, he and a colleague traveled to Europe on business. In the last grisly hour of the flight home, laptops closed, conversations petered out. Most other passengers dozed before the final descent.

Not Eagle. He was wide awake, studying for his weekly 6:30 a.m. session with his Hebrew tutor.

“He’s going through his Hebrew flashcards,’’ recalled Shira Goodman, now the company’s CEO.

Advertisement

Now, at age 50, the Harvard Business School graduate, corporate executive, and one of those responsible for turning the “Easy Button” into a workplace sensation is about to finish rabbinical school. And next month, he will begin as executive director of Boston University’s Hillel, a Jewish student organization, where he will focus on drawing the next generation into Jewish life.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“So many times I wake up and I still say, ‘Is this real?’ ” he said. “I’ve been so lucky. So blessed.”

For Eagle, the move from boardroom to bimah — the synagogue podium — is not so much a career change as it is the realization of a lifelong dream, a vocation he often thought of pursuing but never did. And his job at Hillel is a kind of homecoming.

Eagle grew up in a minimally observant household on Long Island and knew little about Judaism until he arrived at Dartmouth College as a freshman in 1984. Rabbi Michael Paley, now a prominent cleric in New York, invited him to join the campus Hillel.

“He put his arm around me and said, ‘I care about you. Come,’ ” Eagle recalled in a recent interview at BU Hillel’s bustling headquarters on Bay State Road. “When I came, he actually cared about me.”

Advertisement

In his sophomore year, Eagle became research assistant to Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a renowned scholar of Judaism and a congregational rabbi, who became a close friend and mentor. Hertzberg urged Eagle and his friends to rescue a classmate shattered by his father’s death by forming a daily minyan, or prayer group, so that his friend could say kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

Eagle was riveted: “The idea that through prayer, we’re actually saving someone’s life.”

He traveled to Israel and briefly practiced Orthodox Judaism, having fallen in love with the spiritual dimensions of the religion.

“There are people who prayed every day, knew Hebrew, spoke about God, about Israel, in a way I’d never been exposed to,” he said. “They took me to a yeshiva. I remember crying. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.”

Yet Hertzberg, like most of Eagle’s other close friends and family, discouraged him from applying to rabbinical school. His mentor felt rabbis could be more independent if they had achieved a degree of maturity and financial success before entering the rabbinate. Friends and family thought he should pursue a more traditional career track.

Advertisement

“With all the people in my life pushing me away,” he said, “I didn’t have it in me to do it.”

Jevin Eagle.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Jevin Eagle.

So Eagle went to work at a Bain spinoff and then spent two years in Vermont helping to launch a publisher of Jewish books.

After attending Harvard Business School, he joined the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He and his wife, a pediatric ophthalmologist, settled in Massachusetts, and after his first daughter was born, Eagle joined Staples.

Eagle loved the rush of “making things happen” and the camaraderie of working with a team. He helped Staples stand out by focusing on making its shopping experience user-friendly (the marketing team expressed this commitment in its famous “Easy Button” advertising campaign; Eagle’s team manufactured and sold millions of the Easy Buttons).

He remained active in Jewish organizations outside work, and early in his Staples career, Hillel International recruited him to be its CEO. He got the job but turned it down — the required move, salary cut, and travel were too risky for his young family, he decided.

But he was embarrassed to admit during the interview that he had not continued his Jewish studies. He resolved to learn to read Jewish texts in the original Hebrew.

For the next decade, he met with a tutor before work at 6:30 a.m. Fridays, cramming in three to four hours of homework before dawn Saturdays and Sundays.

He knew only about 100 Hebrew words when he began, but he progressed quickly and was soon reading a wide range of Hebrew texts.

“I would leave the session . . . in a different place,” Eagle said. “I was speaking to 2,000 years of ancestors.”

Three years ago, after a stint running a successful startup, DavidsTea, Eagle found himself at a crossroads, asking, “What do you get the most joy from doing?”

He knew. But could he finally go through with it? He went to his rabbi, Carl Perkins, at Temple Aliyah in Needham, with a heavy heart.

“He said, ‘You’ll do one semester. If you love it, you’ll stay,’ ” Eagle said. “And I went home and said to my wife, ‘Great news! We don’t really have to decide!’ ”

But Eagle had, in fact, chosen a new path. Over the past three years, he said, he has sometimes felt the need to pinch himself: “Am I really waking up and the mission, my job, is to learn Torah?”

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the dean of Hebrew College Rabbinical School, said Eagle brings to the rabbinate an “unusual combination of being deeply soulful on the one hand, and on the other hand, extraordinarily strategic and visionary and rigorous about building strong, sustainable organizations. That’s hard to find in one person.”

In the coming months, he will be back at Hillel, this time as the rabbi inviting students in. But Eagle will not leave his business experience behind; he arrives at a time when Hillel International is drawing heavily on business world experience, using data analytics to hone its programming to reach as many Jewish students as possible.

“It’s going to have to be a balance of art and science, balance of people and data, a balance of inspiration and execution,” said Adam Lehman, chief operating officer of Hillel International.

Zoe Baruch, the current BU Hillel president, said Eagle’s story will be an inspiration for Jewish students who haven’t had much exposure to Jewish life.

“He found his love of Judaism” at Hillel, Baruch said. “And you can see it in everything he does.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.