By Adam Finkel, Contributing Writer
Photographs Courtesy of the Wexner Heritage Program
Israel facing the “Who is a Jew” issue, one of several religious dilemmas to confront the state. Clergy “challenged” by intermarriage, assimilation and Hebrew school inattention. American Jewry confronting a nightmare of anti-Semitism and hate. A Supreme Court justice hearing rocked with intense scrutiny. An administration facing scandal dealing with a foreign nation and a country glued to news reports of it and the Congressional testimony around it, day after day. After day.
This was more than three decades ago. It seems like everything — from the flavors of Faygo to the challenges of our demographics to the soup stains on the Maxwell House Haggadah — has stayed the same, with the history and the headlines repeating themselves.
Thirty-one years ago, the initial Detroit cohort of the Wexner Heritage Fellowship, a North American leadership development program designed to provide a toolkit of Jewish knowledge for emerging community leaders, was assembled. Detroit participants were recruited for that initial group when the three youngest members of the current Detroit cohort (including this author) were not yet born. This was the era of Sinai Hospital, still 10 years away from being sold off to DMC.
This was the late 1980s. Boblo and Tally Hall were thriving, so I was told; Google and Uber were not yet envisioned, nor were JSwipe or Twitter or Amazon.
Over the last three decades, it seems like everything except the Amidah has changed. Yet, truth-be-told, that may now depend on your prayer book, which may be digital, colorful, more matriarchal or, for some, non-existent.
One thing is certain: Making sense of a confused, complicated, certainly uncertain world is assisted by education rooted in Torah, by community-building done in real time and with peers who easily become friends. This is Wexner 2017-19 — and Wexner 1986-88.
The program still allows participants the dedicated time with the highest-caliber scholars to discuss and deliberate around the core of who we are as a people, all rooted in the famous Pirkei Avot phrase that inspired the Wexner Heritage Program: “The world stands upon three things: upon Torah, upon Divine service and upon acts of kindness.
The 20 current fellows have discussed pressing issues with noted scholar Deborah Lipstadt just as earlier ones did with Leon Uris, the famous author of bestsellers including Exodus.
Matthew Shiffman of Birmingham, already a passionate philanthropist and dedicated booster of the city and community, has found immediate value in the program.
“Having the opportunity to be part of an incredible group (chavruta), Wexner has provided me a lasting platform to further my Jewish education and prepare me to be an even better lay leader within our community. It’s been many, many years since this program has been in Metro Detroit, and I feel blessed to be part of it.”
The Program’s Roots
When Les Wexner decided to make a significant philanthropic investment in leadership in the North American Jewish community, he approached it entrepreneurially, said Rabbi Jay Henry Moses, vice president at the Wexner Foundation.
“He and his co-founder, the late Rabbi Herb Friedman, piloted the Wexner Heritage Program in Les’ hometown of Columbus, Ohio, in 1985. It was immediately clear they had hit on a winning formula. So, they reached out to neighboring communities, and Detroit, where Les’ dear friends and mentors Max Fisher and Al Taubman were pillars of Jewish life, was one of the first cities to respond to the call and embrace the leadership development opportunity that the Wexner Foundation was offering.
“So, the Detroit group of 1986-88 were pioneers, helping the foundation test and hone the approach to adult Jewish learning in the service of strengthening leadership.”
“As a native Detroiter myself,” Moses said, “I was especially delighted the trustees of the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation, in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, had the vision to realize a generation had passed, and it was time to invest in developing volunteer leaders in the Wexner model again.“Since the 1980s, we have watched with great interest as Detroit weathered economic and social challenges and began an inspirational renaissance in the last decade. In the Wexner program, we teach that leaders need to guide their communities to respond to changing circumstances with an adaptive mindset — as Jewish communities have done for three millenia.
“We work with communities all over North America; nowhere are we seeing more vision and energy than in the current Detroit cohort, which represents nearly every corner of Detroit Jewish life, from city to suburbs, secular to Orthodox, schools, community centers, synagogues, startups and more. As Detroit continues to ride the wave of creativity and renewed energy, these leaders will be at the forefront of exciting new initiatives that will strengthen the community and put Jewish values into action.”
To bring the Wexner program back to Detroit, Larry Wolfe, immediate past Federation president, offered local philanthropic support of $350,000 through the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation. The Wexner Foundation matches that amount to fund the two-year program cost of $700,000. No expenses are incurred by the participants.
“Educated leadership is a catalyst for progressive ideas, programs and communal participation,” Wolfe said. “The Wexner program is in the forefront of establishing new leaders and giving them the tools to enhance our communal outreach.”
The Wexner Foundation has expanded to additional fellowships that span leadership development for Jewish communal professionals in graduate programs (Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program) and leadership development for Jewish professionals (Wexner Field Fellowship), to service learning programs for high school students (Wexner Service Corps) and programs to advance the civic sector in Israel (Wexner Israel Fellowship, Wexner Senior Leaders).
The fellows graduate this July in Jerusalem after having two years of local courses and week-long seminars in Aspen and Utah to learn with participants in other selected cities throughout North America; three new cities begin each year.
During the local courses, a scholar travels to Detroit for a four-hour seminar, usually held every other Wednesday evening. The curriculum span is from liturgy and the Bible and contemporary Israel society to European Jewish history, God and synagogue, and modern leadership topics in 21st-century American Jewry.
“During our first Wexner Heritage retreat in Aspen in the summer of 2017, Les Wexner addressed the group in his beautiful mountainside home,” participant David Kramer of Bloomfield Hills recalled. “He told us he created the program because he came to realize many of the most prominent lay leaders in the Jewish communal world had little to no education in Jewish history, Jewish ritual or Jewishly informed leadership skills.
“I quickly came to realize the principal benefit of the program is not only learning from amazing scholars about all things Jewish, but also understanding how to take that knowledge and apply it to Jewish communal leadership.”
The current participants are already active in a diverse array of leadership endeavors in the community.
For example, Yoni Torgow of Oak Park contributes his time and energy to advance Yeshiva Beth Yehudah; Rachel Opperer of Huntington Woods does the same with Farber Hebrew Day School; Reuben Maxbauer of Farmington Hills has been an active, engaged board member of the Frankel Jewish Academy, as Josh Levine of Huntington Woods has been with the Hillel Day School. Gayle Gold, also of Huntington Woods, has worked to support the Jewish Federation’s endeavors focused on young adult mental health needs. Others of the 20 fellows give of their time by working on Federation, Jewish agency, day school and synagogue boards and committees.
Alicia Chandler of Birmingham, current president of Detroit’s JCRC/AJC, says being a Wexner Fellow has been the most powerful experience of her Jewish communal life.
“It has taught me how to connect my Judaism to my Jewish leadership,” she said. “The experience has helped root my leadership in Torah and tradition and helped me understand the ever-changing entity that is the Jewish community. It has also given me 19 amazing, smart, thoughtful friends. While our community, like all communities, faces challenges, this experience helps empower leaders to embrace the challenges and help our community thrive.”
Levine said, “It also speaks to the resurgence in all areas of the community experienced over the past few years. Wexner recognized all of the wonderful initiatives taking place in Detroit with its Jewish leadership and wanted to cultivate and be part of the great resurgence seen over the past 10 years.”
Gold said, “The Wexner Heritage Program is an incredibly rich resource for the Detroit Jewish community. We are so fortunate that Wexner chose to come back to Detroit. The opportunity to study in a way that develops critical thinking has been truly inspirational for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to stretch my brain in this way. It feels amazing.
“The end result will be a group of leaders with deepened relationships and heightened commitment to our community,” she said. “We will be armed with an enhanced skill set to effectively listen, problem solve and effect change — and, most importantly, the courage to do so.”
Kristen Gross of Franklin said, “Experts have assisted me in honing my personal narrative; succinctly defining why I devote my time to Jewish philanthropic work. Wexner has given me the confidence to be bold and disruptive in certain areas and a thoughtful listener in others.”
Wendy Pittman of Huntington Woods said, “One of my favorite learnings is that pluralism is fundamental in Jewish history and this provides us with a foundation to nurture, support and grow our community from a place of acceptance and unity.”
Rachel Opperer of Huntington Woods summed it up well: “From the community’s standpoint, Wexner has been a successful investment because we have taught a diverse group of Jews to talk with each other, to listen to each other, to respect each other, differences notwithstanding. The more opportunities we have for a community to act like a community, the stronger and more inviting our community will be.”
Scott Kaufman, Federation CEO, hopes to keep the program going in Detroit.
“In Jewish Detroit, we are blessed with a great pipeline of dedicated and talented emerging leaders,” he said. “Among them are a cadre of leaders experiencing the Wexner program, a veritable masterclass in Jewish leadership. Wexner participants are developing expertise in the type of adaptive leadership that is essential in our rapidly changing world. Yet they are also gaining a deeper understanding of the Jewish texts and ethics that inform our enduring mission. Sort of a perfect balance of innovation and tradition that I see as an essential element of the Jewish experience throughout our history.
“Hopefully, our community will be able to bring the Wexner program back on a regular basis as I believe the impact on our community will be profound.”
Wexner Inspired Initial Detroit Alumni
The track record of Wexner Heritage Fellows from 1986-88 is easy to see. Many of the graduates have given decades of leadership and service to the Jewish community, which has included some of the most significant positions of philanthropy, policy-making and community-building within Jewish Detroit, and within the national and international communities.
Peter Alter, as an example, has served as local Federation and Anti-Defamation League president as well as on national Jewish boards. He also studied for more than 15 years with Rabbi Avi Cohen of Partners Detroit, which Alter says has been a very special, worthwhile and privileged experience for him.
Dr. Richard Krugel has chaired the Jewish Fund and been president of the Jewish Community Relations Council; Judge Susan Moiseev has chaired committees at the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and at Jewish Senior Life; Marcy Feldman co-chaired the Federation’s Family Mission to Israel and was vice president of Federation’s Women’s Division; Phillip Fisher served as chair of the Investment Committees of the Jewish Foundation of North America and the boards of the Jewish Foundation and United Way of Southeast Michigan — and this list is just a tip of the iceberg for their involvement and that of other members of their cohort.
Looking back to their time in Wexner, Cheryl and Dan Guyer, who attended together, said, “We were exposed to different models of leadership, developed a more critical way of problem-solving, and had the opportunity to study with nationally and internationally known Jewish thought leaders — Adin Steinsaltz, Joseph Telushkin, Deborah Lipstadt, Yitz Geenberg, Irwin Kula and others.
“We connected with peers in other Jewish communities across the country,” Dan Guyer said. “We studied with them and learned from them and developed a global picture of leadership through Jewish values that prepared me to take on leadership roles in local agencies and nationally. The return of the Wexner program to Detroit is an opportunity to create a group of educated, thoughtful, dynamic and Jewishly sensitive leaders to take on the challenges of our community.”
Cheryl Guyer is director of development at the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Krugel says his experience in Wexner was one of the most significant events of his early Jewish leadership development and was life-altering. “Those years studying with some of the greatest Jewish scholars in the world, including Rabbis Adin Steinsaltz, David Hartman and Shlomo Riskin, among others, made me realize the importance of Jewish education for the future of the Jewish people and the need for adult Jewish education.”
Alter says it’s impossible to overstate the success and impact of the Wexner programs nationally and in Israel.
“For Detroit, it was a privilege 30 years ago, for each of us participate in the program. It is a fantastic boost for Detroit to have Wexner back here. It, of course, enriches the community and creates a buzz, but, even more importantly, it helps to provide Detroit with a new generation of more informed, more educated, more enthusiastic and, therefore, better Jewish leaders. It allows many of the participants who have leadership potential to be/become much better Jewish leaders. The entire community benefits.”