They are presidents of Jewish schools and board members of Jewish organizations. They preside over committees and task forces and congregations.
They are your Jewish community leaders, and many are graduates of the Wexner Heritage Program, a two-year intensive Jewish learning program for North American Jewish lay leaders and volunteers.
The program is run by the Wexner Foundation, which also created the Wexner Graduate Fellowship for emerging leaders in relevant Jewish fields, and the Wexner Israel Fellowship for mid-career Israeli public officials who enroll in a master’s program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The Columbus-based foundation, founded by businessman Les Wexner and his wife, Abigail, recently turned 30, with alumni from Pittsburgh and around the country in attendance at the anniversary celebration-reunion in April, the first time that representatives from every single class gathered together.
Three American cities are chosen each year to be the home base of a class of 20 participants. Pittsburgh was selected in 1986 and again in 2007. The sessions begin and end with a total of three summer retreats held out West or in Israel, and the program of intensive study lasts for two years.
The classes, which meet every three or four weeks, cover such topics as Jewish history, rituals, theology, literature, contemporary issues and the like.
Teachers at each session will vary, but top leaders and scholars from around the world are brought in, such as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and historian Deborah Lipstadt, to name a few.
Charles Saul, an attorney and previous vice president of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, was part of the first class, along with real estate businessman and current Yeshiva chair of the board, Bill Rudolph.
Rudolph, who participated with his wife, Lieba, said, “We really did not think it would have the transformational effect on us that it did. We figured it would give us a good, well-rounded knowledge and understanding of Jewish history and religion, but it became life changing. Once we started to learn, we started to change our lives. We started to become more connected Jewishly and more observant Jewishly.”
In addition to involvement with many other Jewish institutions, Rudolph went on to become chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the first member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to do so in Pittsburgh. “It was revolutionary,” he said.
Saul has been active in numerous Jewish organizations in Pittsburgh, including at least 30 years with Federation. He said that all participants viewed Wexner as a “tremendous gift.”
Saul attended the 30th anniversary celebration, saying that it was a meaningful and moving experience to be with 1,500 like-minded individuals. “We are all united in a common desire for a vibrant Jewish people and a better world.”
Cheryl Moore was part of the 2007-2009 class. She has had extensive involvement in local Jewish organizations, including as president of the Agency for Jewish Learning, chair of Jewish Learning at the Federation and board memberships elsewhere. In addition, she has sat on national boards of Jewish organizations.
Moore is grateful to have participated. “I never would have been able to do such extensive and intimate learning with so many world-renowned scholars. I have maintained a relationship with many of them and have frequently used them as a resource. The quality of the teaching and materials was superb.
“The depth of thinking that we were challenged to do was profound. The formation of a true community was moving and has paid off handsomely,” she said.
Sue Berman, a clinical psychologist who is now working as a life coach specializing in parenting, was also part of the 2007-2009 group. Berman has been involved with Federation for many years and has been part of the board at Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh in a number of capacities, including chair.
For Berman, studying together as a group and truly getting to know her cohorts was one of the most rewarding aspects of participation.
“I believe it has made our community stronger, even six years later,” said Berman. “I’ve worked with a lot of those people on projects in the last six years. My comfort level and belief in them, and I think theirs in me, is a different level than it would have been without having been together in that cohort.”
“It shifted my confidence and ability to think through leadership issues,” she added.
To participate in Wexner, one must be nominated, but the application process is both rigorous and competitive. The program is free of charge for the attendees.
To date, there have been 94 Wexford Heritage classes from 34 communities, 27 Wexner Graduate Fellowship classes and 26 Wexner Israeli Fellowship classes. Expansions to these programs are in the works, including the Wexner Service Corps for high school juniors and seniors.
Nina Butler, an educational consultant, participated as a graduate fellow, the only person in Pittsburgh to have done so. Butler earned a second master’s degree in special education and a doctorate in educational administration and policy studies.
Butler has been active in the Pittsburgh Jewish community for more than 30 years, including serving on the boards of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, and Jewish Residential Services and served as principal of general studies at Hillel Academy.
For Butler, the fellowship broadened her world and deepened her thinking.
“My Wexner colleagues are among the most brilliant leaders I’ve ever known, and, as different as we are, we all share an unshakable commitment to the Jewish community. It makes for rich, spirited discussions with creative thinkers.”
Though the program is geared toward emerging and established Jewish volunteers, Jeff Finkelstein, President and CEO of Pittsburgh’s Federation, was part of the 2007-2009 class. Finkelstein worked with donors to help fund the Pittsburgh Wexner class. “I made the investment because we knew it would pay off for the community,” he said.
“It gives people leadership skills and Jewish knowledge to help them be not just leaders, but to be Jewish leaders, to lead in a Jewish way.”
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.