National Jewish leadership program returns to Pittsburgh

It’s a big community investment — $700,000, half of which comes from the generosity of local Jewish philanthropists — but the ultimate returns may be immeasurable.

The Wexner Heritage Program, a two-year learning experience in select cities across North America, is currently accepting nominations for its 2018 cohort: 20 Jewish lay leaders and volunteers from Pittsburgh between the ages of 30 and 45 who have demonstrated leadership potential.

This will be the third time Pittsburgh has participated in the Wexner Heritage Program; the Steel City was first selected to take part in the program in 1986, then again in 2007.

“The purpose of the Wexner Heritage Program is to make an investment in volunteer leadership and to support them as they grow into their leadership in the community,” said Rabbi Ben Berger, the program director of the Wexner Foundation, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. Berger was in town last week to meet with Wexner alumni and to speak with them about the nomination process for the 2018 cohort.

The Wexner Heritage Program is run by the Wexner Foundation, the umbrella organization that operates programs such as the Wexner Graduate Fellowship for individuals seeking graduate training in Jewish communal service or Jewish studies, and the Wexner Israel Fellowship that provides public sector training in Israel.

The Wexner Foundation was established by Les Wexner — chairman and CEO of L Brands (formerly Limited Brands) — and his wife, Abigail, 33 years ago.

“Les Wexner was a relatively young successful businessman and already had the Limited Brands that would become an empire in retail,” Berger said. “He came to the realization in a dangerous situation on a mountaintop in Vale and asked himself, ‘What’s my life for? What am I doing and how am I going to give more and do more? Am I going to give my money and my time to things I really care about and value?’ That was the way he came to start thinking about becoming a philanthropist.

“Ultimately,” Berger continued, “he looked around the Jewish community both here and in Israel’s public sector and saw that we weren’t investing in our leaders.”

Les Wexner took the matter into his own hands and assembled a group of friends in his home community of Columbus. Together they spent a year studying Jewish history and texts with prominent scholars. After that first year concluded, the group asked to keep studying together for another year, Berger explained.

“That was 33 years ago,” Berger said. “And Les said, ‘if we can do this here, we can bring it to other communities.’ Pittsburgh was an early community, and it’s grown from there.”

For many years, the program was funded entirely by the Wexner Heritage Foundation, but by the early 2000s it switched to a partnership model, allowing individual communities also to be financially invested in the program.

“Those communities are still coming back even with the partnership model, which is a sign that it is working in the community,” Berger said.

Such is the case for Pittsburgh.

“In all Jewish organizations, or for that matter any organization or company, it’s all about the people,” noted Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which is responsible for raising about $350,000 for the program. “Wexner is one of the greatest ways to invest in Jewish leadership development.”

Wexner graduates have gone on to chair the Federation’s board, take on positions at the national Federation level and head other Jewish institutions throughout the city, including the Jewish Association on Aging, Friendship Circle and day schools.

“The Federation is helping to bring this program back to Pittsburgh to benefit the entire Jewish community,” Finkelstein said, emphasizing that the fundraising for Wexner is separate and apart from the Federation’s annual campaign. More than half of the money needed to fund the 2018 cohort already has been raised, with Wexner alumni being the first to step up to the plate to donate, according to Finkelstein.

Since its launch, the Wexner Heritage Foundation has educated Jewish leaders in 33 communities across North America.

“We create cohorts of 20 local members in each community we are in and, over the course of two years, provide a deep Jewish and leadership education that we intend will energize them as a class to be collaborative, to be confident and informed and to be ready as a Jewish volunteer leader,” said Berger.

It is that fostering of collaboration that can yield the most community impact, according to Danny Rosen, a member of the 2007 cohort and co-chair, along with Sue Berman Kress, of the Wexner alumni group for the region.

The “real power of Wexner,” Rosen said, is bringing 20 people together to learn and think about “how we can have better influence in the region. The ripple effects of these relationships and connections and networking benefit the Jewish community tremendously.”

Rosen, who was the board chair of AgeWell Pittsburgh when he began the Wexner program, has since expanded his service to the community by chairing and serving on a variety of boards and commissions both within and beyond the Jewish community, including the Friendship Circle, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and the Federation.

While Wexner does not specify outcomes for individual communities, the foundation hopes that “with the investment, each one of these 20 people will pay it back in some way. We believe that leaders will lead, and they will find ways to lead, they just need the skills and the support of the community to do it.”

The Wexner program is the kind of learning opportunity that no one city could provide, because they bring in scholars from around the country and have resources that no one city could have. – Sue Berman Kress, co-chair of the Wexner Alumni Group.

While the academic aspect of the program extends through a two-year term, those at the foundation think of it as “a lifetime experience, because you enter into a network of 3,000 alumni, which includes not only the Wexner Heritage Program, but also includes alumni from our Wexner Graduate Fellowship and our Wexner Israel Fellowships,” Berger said. “And through each of these programs, if you see what many of them are doing across the United States and in Israel’s public sector, they are running great institutions, they are at the forefront of great leadership throughout.”

Kress, who was part of the 2007 Pittsburgh cohort, is a case in point. She is currently serving as chair of Hillel Jewish University Center’s governance and human resources committees; chair of Women’s Philanthropy for the Federation; co-chair of a new Federation young adult task force; and as a lay leader of AgeWell Pittsburgh. Kress also sits on a nonprofit board outside the Jewish community, she said.

Kress praised the program’s scope and impact.

“The Wexner program is the kind of learning opportunity that no one city could provide, because they bring in scholars from around the country and have resources that no one city could have,” she said. “It is a really unique experience.”

Being a member of Wexner is also a “lot of hard work,” she added. “The sessions are four hours long, twice a month for two academic years. You also commit to three weeklong retreats in the summers. And there’s work to be done between sessions.”

The retreats “take place in idyllic locations in the mountains out West, in Colorado and Utah, and one of them is in Israel,” said Berger. The instructors of the sessions at the retreats and throughout the academic year “are the highest caliber” Jewish educators.

The course covers Biblical history through modern Jewish history, as well as the rabbinic period and contemporary Jewish leadership challenges.

The program is entirely free to those chosen to participate.

The application process begins with a nomination by an executive professional from one of the local Jewish community agencies or synagogues, or by a Wexner alum. Applicants are then required to submit essays on Jewish identity and their understanding of Jewish leadership.

The Wexner Foundation in Columbus forms a committee that reads the applications, then chooses and interviews finalists. Local alumni are not involved in the final selection of the Pittsburgh cohort.

Nominations close on Oct. 31.

“The experience is just unmatched,” said Kress. “And it’s been a great investment in the community,” she said. PJC

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