Founded in 1984 by Leslie and Abigail Wexner, the Wexner Foundation has become one of the premier organizations dedicated to the development of Jewish leadership. This month, the Wexner Foundation’s Heritage Program, which specifically supports volunteer leadership, will be sending a cohort of 100 students from five different cities, including Seattle, to Israel to learn how to better partner their local communities with Israeli Jewry.
In addition to the Heritage Program, the Wexner Israel Fellowship funds up to ten Israeli public officials each year to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Wexner Graduate Fellowship focuses on strengthening the leadership skills of Jewish professionals through Jewish education and philosophy.
The Seattle branch of the Heritage Program is supported by the Wexner Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, and the Samis Foundation. Amy Amiel, senior program manager for the Samis Foundation, said that while Samis typically focuses its efforts on Jewish K-12 education and Israel experiences for teens, the organization’s leaders felt that the Wexner Heritage Program played a significant role in the Samis Foundation’s work with Jewish youth.
“What Wexner is doing, which is growing committed and educated leaders in our community, is so powerful to our foundation,” said Amiel, who participated in the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program herself. “We know it will affect, both directly and indirectly, the very causes that Samis supports.”
David Chivo, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, called the Wexner Heritage Program a “twenty-first century toolbox.” He explained that the skills participants gain are “Jewish technologies” based on the Jewish history, text, and law studied during the course of the two-year program.
“The Wexner program is a symbol of what Jewish leadership and Jewish engagement can look like in Seattle,” said Chivo. “We’re creating a network of human beings filled with knowledge and commitment and appreciation of our heritage who can change our Jewish world.”
Rabbi Jay Moses, national director of the Heritage Program, echoed Chivo’s sentiments. “The program is meant to make [the participants] more knowledgeable, more competent, and more inspired Jewish leaders,” he said. Moses is an alumnus of the Wexner programs, having participated in the Graduate Fellowship program as a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
“Being in the Wexner Fellowship program exposed me to the best and brightest future Jewish professionals,” said Moses. “It gave me a framework for how to think about being a leader that still helps me as I navigate day-to-day challenges of working and being a professional in the Jewish community.”
Moses will be leading the Heritage Program’s upcoming trip to Israel, and hopes that the trip will help the program’s participants understand the modern religious, political, and social challenges faced by Israel. He emphasized that this trip is by no means a sightseeing trip or a way for participants to get a “shot in the arm of Jewish identity.”
“We take these folks to Israel to explore the issues up close and have them hearing right from the people who are living in Israel every day,” Moses explained. “The ultimate goal is for people to find a way of engaging more deeply with Israel, and to help advance a new kind of relationship between Israel and North American Jews.”
Tamar Benzikry-Stern is a participant in the Heritage Program and a member of the Seattle-based cohort that will be traveling to Israel with Rabbi Moses. Benzikry-Stern said she’s been to Israel a number of times to visit family, but is looking forward to the Heritage Program providing her with a different kind of trip.
“The program does a really thoughtful and intentional job of creating a cross-section of the community [within each cohort],” she said, adding that “it’s going to be really special being able to see Israel again with a group of people from my Jewish community that are coming at the issues from different places.”
Two of Benzikry-Stern’s fellow program participants, Brian Judd and Jeremy Derfner, are good examples of cohort members from diverse backgrounds. Judd, a Seattle native and self-proclaimed “Jew by choice,” converted to Judaism in 2007 and has been an active participant in Queen Anne’s Kavana Cooperative and West Seattle’s progressive synagogue, Kol HaNeshamah, which he and his husband helped found. By contrast, Derfner, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish community in South Carolina, now considers himself an atheist, but maintains a strong interest in the secular Jewish community.
“What I conceive of as leadership for myself is slightly different,” said Derfner. “I’m interested in new intellectual pathways for people who care about being Jewish, but don’t necessarily feel comfortable with the current institutional landscape.”
Regardless of their different approaches to Judaism, all three program participants are looking forward to the trip to Israel.
“The trip will allow us to interface with Israel in all of its complexity,” said Judd. “It will allow us to come home with some great experiences that we can share with the community to further our conversation around how Israel plays into our lives as North American Jews.”