The buzz started in small waves when we boarded the plane to Denver. By the time we got on the chartered bus to Vail, it had escalated to a steady stream of handshakes, Jewish geography, smiles of recognition among the newest members of the Wexner Heritage Foundation.
It continued unabated for the 2-1/2 hours that our bus climbed the majestically alive Rockies, driving alongside a creek that alternated between bumpy white rapids and glassy calm. And it continued in Vail -- not the small talk and storytelling of partygoers, but serious yet unpretentious conversations about what makes a Jew a Jew.
The conversation will go on, I know, over the next two years, as 40 Los Angeles community leaders spend serious chunks of time immersed in the depth and breadth of our tradition, uncovering the meaning and motivation in our chosen courses of community service.
Before we embarked on this six-day institute for new members of the foundation, along with our spouses and 60 new members and spouses from New York, the staff at the Wexner Heritage Foundation did their best to give us an inkling of how involving this program would be. The application had exceeded a dozen pages. The interview with three Wexner staff members had been grueling.
We had been inundated with reading matter: a "cultural literacy" binder with almost 1,000 terms, from Adam to Zachor, and blank lines for us to define them; then a book on Jewish holidays, a Bible, another 3-inch binder. Just how justified Wexner was in being almost mysteriously snobbish about the caliber of the program would become clear over the next few days.
The educators invited to the New Members Institute are some of the top in the country.
Traditional services were led by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., and his cantor, Dr. Elli Kranzler, who has a voice like an angel. Liberal services were led by the legendary Debbie Friedman and Deborah Lipstadt. Best- known as a courageous Holocaust scholar, Lipstadt also turned out to be a deeply spiritual woman with a profound understanding of Judaism.
Lipstadt led one of the groups in the Basic Judaism Workshop, the core of the program, which far exceeds the definition of "basic."
My group was facilitated by Rabbi Nathan Laufer, Wexner's president and CEO. He began our first meeting with the question of why God created the world and ended our last by having us compose ethical wills, in which, some of us in tears, we bequeathed values and ideas to our children or future children.
The workshops were intimate and absorbing, made more so from hearing each other's Jewish odysseys. We heard heart-wrenching and inspiring stories of Jewish journeys that brought people to where they are, stories that sometimes began three generations back and meandered through sometimes unlikely, sometimes typically American, sometimes tragic and sometimes glorious paths.
All of them led to the Wexner table, and all of the tellers were contributing in a major way to the Jewish community, whether through federations, through synagogues, through schools, or through organizations to help the poor or the ill. What was so remarkable about this group of machers -- both students and faculty -- is that everyone was genuinely interested in what everyone else had to say. The field was level; there was no pulling rank in terms of where one stood on the religious spectrum, where one found herself financially, how many titles came before and after a name.
The faculty members made themselves eminently accessible. I davened with noted author Blu Greenberg and had a 45-minute conversation with Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., over Shabbat dinner.
One late night in the hotel lounge over beers and Pellegrinos, Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr Hatorah joined a group of us, and the conversation quickly turned to God and the authorship of the Oral Law.
On Shabbat afternoon, Lipstadt gave an incredible talk on what it was like to confront Holocaust denier David Irving, and on the Jewish community and tradition that gave her the strength to do it.
Gordis, who moved to Israel two years ago, talked about what it was like for his children to live in constant terror and what it was like for Israelis to see empty hotels and shuttered restaurants, thanks to an American community they feel has abandoned them.
His speech made everyone cry, and the discussion on the responsibility of American Jews to support Israel in times like these continued well into the night, even after an impromptu town meeting following havdalah.
The still-raw emotion carried over into the ceremony ending Shabbat. Havdalah, like the pre-Shabbat warm-up and the concert Friedman gave on Sunday night, inspired both tears and dancing.
Chains and circles of people flew across the room, wending past each other and through each other in a dynamic display that typified so much of our time together.
"Intense" was the word most often heard among the Wexnerites. By design, I believe, the schedule was so packed, the topics so emotionally and intellectually laden, that the experience became all-encompassing, and the outside world seemed to disappear in an intellectual and spiritual haze.
As we rode down the mountain back to Denver, to go back to Los Angeles and New York, I kept my eyes on the hundreds of streams and rivulets that merged with the creek, which would flow into a river, which would pour down the Rockies in a torrent of vitality. That river, like our collected stream of knowledge and inspiration, can use the force of its collected strength to nourish all that it touches.
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