By Rabbi Jay Henry Moses
With Pesach behind us, we may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. Our great liberation story, yetziat mitzrayim, feels like an accomplishment worth celebrating and relishing – and celebrate we do, retelling the story of our escape from Egypt and its bondage.
But our tradition is quick to remind us that the yetziah, the departure, is only the beginning of the story. The real work and wisdom is accrued as we wander through the wilderness. It is there that we receive Torah at Sinai along with the countless painful lessons of life as a covenantal people trying to stay in relationship to each other and to God.
At The Wexner Foundation, we have learned this lesson in our decades of training leaders in the North American Jewish community and Israel. We invest in leaders who are poised for maximum impact; we charge them up with knowledge, confidence, and fellow travelers, and then we “let our people go.” Like our ancestors, their “departure” from our programs launches a new phase ripe with opportunity and inspiration. Alumni enter or return to their Jewish communal work and encounter obstacles, develop alliances, and acquire hard-earned wisdom as they attempt to exercise transformative leadership.
Our leadership initiatives – those points of yetziah, departure for leadership journeys – are so intensive that they require the primary focus of much of our staff and they occupy a profound psychic space for our participants. So it caught us somewhat by surprise when we realized, 30 years into our work, that perhaps our greatest opportunity for impact was as yet untapped and would require us to practice the adaptive leadership we had been preaching.
In 2015 we celebrated our 30th anniversary and were blown away when 1200 alumni came to Columbus to reconnect and recommit to the leadership lessons they learned in our programs. It was immediately clear that our greatest resource was the shared leadership passions of people who had never met each other, but whose mutual connection to our work represented a unique potential leverage point.
Moreover, we realized that in practice, our population of 3000 alumni was not really one network. It was many smaller networks of leaders, most of whom felt connected only to the small cohort with whom they shared their specific Wexner Foundation experience. Undoubtedly, the relationships forged in those mini-networks were extremely meaningful. The drawback was that any individual was likely to encounter only a few dozen or at most a couple hundred other leaders. That left hundreds of potentially fruitful connections between leaders with shared passions and interests unrealized, simply because they had no way of ever finding each other! We were underutilizing our most precious resources: leaders and the meaningful partnerships they create.
In recognition of the invaluable wisdom our alumni had acquired in the wilderness of Jewish life and in response to the “untapped connections” challenge, in 2016 we rolled out our newest program: Wexner Summits: The Network in Action.
Summits bring together alumni of all Wexner programs across North America and Israel to connect and collaborate for action on key issues of shared concern. We have launched Summits on three topics so far: the Israel-North American Jewish Relationship, Social Justice and Civil Discourse. Most recently, we gathered the stakeholders of the most promising initiatives from those first three Summits and paired them with new alumni consultants at an Accelerator Summit designed to give their work an additional boost.
Summits have consisted of an initial two-day gathering followed by an intervening year of independent work and ending with a second two-day gathering. Participants have formed small “working groups” to tackle change related to the topic collaboratively.
More than 200 of our alumni have participated in Summits thus far, creating meaningful initiatives. Some important organizations have been strengthened by work generated at Summits, and some entirely new projects and programs have been launched out of Summit work. These achievements will be the subject of future articles.
But just as important as the topic-related work has been a deep weaving of relationships across our network. Israeli public officials, rabbis, Jewish educators in North America and volunteer board members from the leading organizations in the North American Jewish community have joined forces. They have learned about each other’s lives, work and values. Meaningful conversations, based in shared trust and willingness to be vulnerable, have strengthened the fabric of Jewish peoplehood across our network. A new respect has developed for those whose contribution to the Jewish and Israeli future is very different, but equally powerful.
In the most wonderful outcomes, participants have gone beyond creating meaningful initiatives to advance the cause of social justice, civil discourse or strengthening the Israel-North America relationship; they have collaborated on entirely different projects because of the relationships forged at the Summit. It’s often the unintended consequences that are the most impactful.
We are gradually weaving together our network of 3000 alumni so that they can take the talent, energy and commitment these leaders possess – enhanced and turbo-charged by a Wexner learning experience – and really take it to the next level. The result will be not only impactful work to support Israel and Jewish life, it will also be the ultimate leveraging of our Foundation’s most precious resource: the people we have been honored to train and strengthen in their leadership. Beyond the yetziah, the launch, and fortified with the Torah of life in the leadership wilderness, our alumni are helping lead us toward fulfilling the promise and destiny of our people.
Rabbi Jay Henry Moses is Vice President of The Wexner Foundation.