Ben Breslauer didn't know much about the Wexner Heritage Foundation, but he knew enough to be impressed.
He knew that some of the most active and excited members on the various Jewish community boards he sat on were Wexner members. He knew that Los Angeles needed more of these leaders in all of its Jewish organizations. He knew that whatever Wexner was doing, it was doing it well enough for him to want get involved in bringing the program back to Los Angeles, soon after the first 80 members completed the two-year program in 1999.
"I am convinced that Los Angeles as a community desperately needs to develop its young leadership, and I have never seen a program that does it as well as this one," said Breslauer, a retired management consultant who sits on the boards of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Breslauer approached Helen Zukin, who was appointed chairman of the Brandeis-Bardin board toward the end of her two-year participation in Wexner's intensive seminars.
Zukin contacted Rabbi Nathan Laufer, president and CEO of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. Wexner's policy is to pay for a program in a city once, but the Jewish community in that city must raise the funds for subsequent programs. Zukin assured Laufer that she had a serious donor willing to put together the hefty sum needed to bring Wexner back to Los Angeles.
Breslauer and Laufer had a productive and positive lunch at Zukin's home, and over the next 18 months, the $1 million needed to sponsor two new Los Angeles groups came together.
After their initial meeting, Laufer confirmed that if Breslauer could find $500,000, he could get the same commitment from Leslie Wexner, founder of The Limited and Victoria's Secret and patron of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. Breslauer soon had commitments from several major philanthropists who also knew little about the Wexner program but knew enough about Breslauer to trust him.
Newton and Rochelle Becker, Stanley and Pamela Chais, and Jonathan Mitchell of the Edward D. and Anna Mitchell Family Foundation, each came through with $50,000, as did Breslauer's family foundation, the Samuel and Helen Soref Foundation. Later, James Cummings, president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and a graduate of the first L.A. Wexner group, put up the same sum.
With $250,000 locked in, Breslauer convinced the local Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation that the Wexner program was a worthwhile investment in the future of the Los Angeles Jewish community.
"I can look across the spectrum of communal organizations and see Wexner participants everywhere, taking on more responsible roles, clearly becoming leaders in the community," said Federation President John Fishel, another member of the first Wexner group. "It's very clear to me that even in a city as large and in a Jewish community as diverse as our own, this program can make a palpable difference."
The Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation each put in $125,000, which cleared the way for Wexner to return to Los Angeles.
Laufer said that when Wexner invests in a city, the returns to the community are enormous, both in terms of communal activism and philanthropic dollars.
The success is due to more than the faculty's teaching skills and mastery of Jewish texts, he added, and more than the networking and bonding that occurs among the diverse leaders who meet at Wexner.
Much of it, he said, comes from the Wexner Heritage Foundation's commitment to be a first-class program and to instill pride in its members.
"The Jewish community needs to provide programs of real excellence, whether in adult education or leadership development or day schools or summer camps. These institutions must be absolutely A-1 first rate, comparable and competitive with the best America has to offer," Laufer said. "People have to feel that to be Jewish is an honor and a privilege, not a compromise."