Twenty local emerging Jewish leaders are beginning a two-year fellowship with the Columbus, Ohio-based Wexner Foundation. The goal, explained Sue Berman Kress, a member of Pittsburgh’s 2007 Wexner Heritage Program cohort, is to rear the next generation of communal stalwarts by exposing them to top-notch experts in leadership and Jewish studies.
As part of the Wexner program, cohort members attend local four-hour evening seminars approximately twice a month. Additionally, throughout the program’s duration, participants attend three weeklong summer retreats in the United States and Israel. Such summer institutes allow Wexner groups “from multiple communities to come together” and create a synergistic experience, according to the program.
“The opportunity is a gift to the participants. They pay nothing to participate; the costs are shared between the Wexner Foundation” and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said Berman Kress. “It’s an unparalleled learning experience.”
Danny Rosen, who will be replacing Berman Kress as Pittsburgh’s Wexner Alumni representative, was also part of the 2007 cohort, Pittsburgh’s second group to participate in the program.
“The Wexner experience was extremely valuable to me personally as an opportunity to step back and think with others about the broader goals of the Jewish community, and the impact we could have as individuals and…coming together to help the community,” said Rosen.
Rosen’s experiences interested Tammy Hepps in the program.
“Danny Rosen described Wexner as ‘a gift.’ That was obviously compelling,” said Hepps. “I know he did not use the term lightly.
“Another friend who is familiar with the program explained to me that the Wexner approach is to bring the best teachers in each subject area to the participants for the best possible learning experience,” she added. “That sounded incredibly exciting. Who wouldn’t want a chance to learn in a substantive way from so many thought leaders?”
David (Dovid) Knoll, who will join Hepps and 18 others as members of Pittsburgh’s third-ever Wexner cohort, said he is intrigued by the “cross-section of the community” that will be participating.
The Wexner Heritage Program began in 1985 after Leslie H. Wexner, founder and CEO of LBrands, determined that Jewish communities would be strengthened by leaders who possessed a greater understanding of “Jewish history and tradition.” Wexner partnered with Rabbi Herb Friedman to create the program.
Two years after the program’s inception, Pittsburgh’s first cohort participated. Twenty years elapsed before another Steel City group was involved. It’s taken 11 years for the third to participate.
“The opportunity to apply arrived at a moment in my own evolving Jewish communal participation, where I had been feeling increasingly that I was missing some of the very elements Wexner provides — in particular, its focus on leadership training and understanding the challenges currently facing our community,” said Hepps.
“In part, I hope that the whole experience will make me more effective in the work I am already doing, but I also hope it will show me pathways to get involved with confidence in tackling the larger more challenging issues that preoccupy me when it comes to the trajectory of our community,” she continued.
“I feel that one of the aspects of my Jewish self is an obligation to give back and an obligation to serve my community, and what excites me the most about Wexner is enriching my leadership skills and learning the tools that will help inspire other people to help give back to the community,” echoed Bev Block, a member of Pittsburgh’s newest cohort.
What this group will discover is that Wexner is the “gift that keeps on giving,” said Rosen. “I was fortunate to participate in the Wexner program just as I was becoming the board chair of the Friendship Circle, and the opportunity to have others around me as a sounding board and brainstorming group, and the opportunity to learn with them as the organization moved forward was invaluable.”
Added Jeffrey Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation and a member of Pittsburgh’s 2007 cohort: “Our Pittsburgh Wexner Heritage Program alumni over the last decades are among our most important leaders and dedicated volunteers in Jewish organizations today. I know that the new class of Wexner leaders will provide our community with outstanding leaders for years to come.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.