Jewish Journal


September 30, 1999

The Completion of an Extraordinary Two-Year Experience


In July, I was privileged to join almost 80 other Los Angelenos, many of their spouses and a few of their children, in Jerusalem for the completion of an extraordinary two-year experience. The Wexner Heritage Foundation has just given our community a wonderful gift. Eighty young men and women, many already leaders in our community, our synagogues and our Jewish schools, spent 24 months in intensive Jewish learning, with the financial support of the Wexner Foundation of Columbus, Ohio.

During the past two years, four groups met concurrently, every two weeks. Together, the four highly diverse groups reflect the makeup of our own complex Jewish community. People from as far afield as the South Bay and Agoura sat together and learned. Jews who identify as Orthodox sat with those who identify as Reform or Conservative and discussed their common heritage. We read, discussed and argued over the historical roots of Judaism. The Torah, Talmud and Mishna were all sources of highly animated discussions and debates, as the Wexner Fellows conversed over their relevance in today's world.

The program was intellectually challenging, giving many of the participants exposure to some of the most superb Judaic scholars here in the United States and from around the world. It is difficult at the end of a long and perhaps stressful work day to imagine sitting in a board room in West Los Angeles or Century City and actually concentrating on serious issues. It is even harder to imagine men and women who have been out of a formal educational setting for some 20 years, taking the time to prepare for each session by reading copious amounts. Yet, that is what occurred consistently for two years. But what was, and is, most amazing is the fact that people who would otherwise never have an opportunity to meet due to the size and complexity of our community, not only got to meet, but to know each other and become, in many cases, close personal friends. Participants from the Orthodox community, many Yeshiva trained, were initially surprised by how seriously the non-Orthodox participants took the program of Judaic learning. On the other side, Reform and Conservative participants began to get a better understanding of how the more traditionally Orthodox in our community see themselves and the broader Jewish community. It was a deeply moving tribute to the concept of one Jewish people.

In July, the Wexner Fellows sat in a tent outside of the Israel Museum at the formal Wexner Program graduation. There was a truly exhilarating feeling among the 200 plus in attendance: They included individuals who are in financial services, manufacturers, journalists, talent agents, film producers and professionals in the areas of law, real estate, accounting, medicine and sales. They sensed in their accomplishment that they could make a difference in changing and improving our Los Angeles Jewish community. There is no doubt in my mind that they will.

The Wexner Foundation has given something great to our community. It has created a core of Jewishly knowledgeable leaders who can, in the years to come, step forward into key communal roles and make serious decisions from a Jewish perspective. Considering the enormous assimilation of the American Jewish community into the mainstream, the program has in its own small way helped to establish a Jewish foundation upon which our community can build.

Yet, 80 people does not a community make; not even 80 leaders. We are a community of more than a half million souls. What the Wexner Foundation has given to Los Angeles is a model that is obviously successful in imparting core Judaic knowledge. It has fashioned a mechanism that can be used to bring together disparate streams of Jewish practice, observance and ideology. It has created an energy that can now be directed into the next steps in communal development.

Adult Jewish learning is serious business. As our Jewish Federation places more emphasis on the Jewish future, we have placed increasing resources into the area of formal and informal Jewish education for children. Throughout Los Angeles, Jewish day schools are growing. Enrollment in Jewish camps is at capacity. Visits to the Jewish state through the Israel experience program is becoming a rite of passage. For the adults in our community, there are also dozens of successful adult-education programs through our synagogues and local Jewish universities. Yet, do we reach all those who would like to enhance their Jewish knowledge? Probably not. That is also why the Wexner program has been so important in establishing a model that can be replicated or modified.

The Wexner Foundation believes in institutional change. It has given our community an opportunity to consider what meaningful adult Jewish learning should be and how to assure it is available and accessible. And this is a challenge for our Jewish Federation as we move toward the new year. We must integrate what we have and what we would like to have; to take the 80 Wexner Fellows and to increase their number by two- or three- or four-fold. To recognize that a Jewishly knowledgeable Jewish leader can indeed be an agent for communal change and for a brighter communal future. Thank you, Wexner Foundation, for giving us the opportunity to be a better Los Angeles Jewish community.

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