Sinai in Columbus
By Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D.
That’s exactly how it felt for those of us who gathered to revisit 30 spectacular years of the Wexner Foundation, my vote for the experiment with the greatest vision and long-term promise for 21st-century Jewry. The brain child of Leslie Wexner in Columbus, the Foundation has quietly but systematically been establishing a coalition of partners who can change the world: a generation of young Israelis brought to Harvard to learn leadership and business entrepreneurship; a cadre of young adults about to enter careers in Jewish organizational leadership; and a massive cohort of Jewish men and women in every major city in North America, who have been given the Jewish education they always wanted paired with vision to lead the communities that they serve.
Just two weeks ago, some 1500 graduates of all three programs converged on Columbus to say thank you and to herald their coming of age as the next generation charged with creating a Jewish future, the people who already determine much of Jewish life and who are poised to do a lot more.
Wexner is not one of yesteryear’s salvage operations: saving Jewish literacy, Jewish memories, Jewish in-marriage, Jewish nostalgia, or Jewish anything-else. It is a crash course in studying Jewishly, thinking differently and acting strategically – not to recoup past losses, but to establish future gains. It lays the groundwork to be for our time what the Rabbis were for life under Rome, what Maimonides was for the golden age of medieval philosophy; and what Zionists were for a window of opportunity in which to establish only the third Jewish commonwealth in history.
As befits a “Sinai” experience, I walked away with a “Torah” that undergirds the Wexner vision – boiled down here into Ten Commandments that stand out for me. To be sure, there are many more, and each of these deserves expansion, but you get the idea: they should be emblazoned on the boardroom walls of every Jewish organization and the computer screen savers of everyone who works there.
- Attack tomorrow’s challenges, not yesterday’s. Be proactive, not reactive.
- If we demonstrate the reason Judaism matters, it will start to matter.
- Develop a compelling vision of why and how it ought to matter, and remain systematically and scrupulously true to that vision.
- Root the vision in a strong moral compass; be value-driven – with guiding values that are inherently Jewish but intensely universal as well.
- Saturate your organization with that strong moral leadership buttressed by authentic Jewish learning.
- Run your organization with consummate excellence. Your mission is too serious to let it be compromised by mediocrity. Demanding excellence for yourself, you will get it from others.
- Treat those others with respect: your own staff; the teachers and consultants you hire; the people you serve – the people who put their faith in you. In almost 30 years of teaching Wexner classes, I can say that nowhere else have I been shown such consummate respect. My adult Wexner students have had their time, energy, and attention richly rewarded by access to cutting edge thinking, spectacular presenters, and conferences in environments that give the message, “You matter.”
- Practice scrupulous honesty with regular reviews of what is working and what isn’t. Do whatever is necessary to reestablish the centrality of your vision and the excellence of how you carry it out.
- Surround yourself with the right people: they must share your values and your vision; they must do, with excellence, what you cannot do yourself; and work positively as a team with faith in what you all are building together.
- Over time, these practices will build trust – trust well-placed, trust that will catapult everyone to a place of demanding the best from themselves and enjoying the common journey to a better future.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College in NY has authored many books, especially at Jewish Lights Publishing, and writes regularly in his blog, “Life and a Little Liturgy.”