'Now it's the start of the doing' - Wexner class reflects on experience

PHOTO: Portland's Wexner Heritage cohort pauses for a group picture during their class trip to Israel. Twenty emerging Jewish leaders recently completed the intensive two-year program, Portland's first Wexner Heritage class in 27 years. (Courtesy Anna Epstein)

The Wexner Heritage Program Portland Class of 2021 came from different backgrounds, with different goals and expectations. And while the impact of their experience was different for each of them, there seems to be a consensus that the experience was nothing short of transformative.
“It was very rich and very meaningful,” explained new Wexner alum Jaimie Harper, “and I know it will kind of percolate throughout our lives for years to come.”
Harper, along with Rochelle Abitz, Noah Barish, Emily Benoit, Marc Blattner, Anna Epstein, Josh Frankel, Nicole Frisch, Nadine Gartner, Simon Gottheiner, Jessica Hilbert, David Hirsch, Leah Katz, Ronnie Malka, Liza Milliner Christie Moore, Benjamin O’Glasser, Jonathan Singer, Mark Zeitzer and Jason Zidell, were selected to complete the two-year program for Jewish community leaders in 2020 from a pool of 106 nominees. They are the first Wexner Heritage class from Portland since 1996. 
The legacy of Portland’s first Wexner class was an inspiration for Malka to apply. “The people I know who did it the first time have stayed incredibly involved in the community and have really changed our community,” she said.
Frankel had a similar experience while also receiving encouragement from his aunt who participated in the program in Los Angeles.
“These were all people I have deep respect for,” he said, “so I pursued it based on their recommendations.”
The program was delayed a year due to covid, and began meeting online to begin, with four-hour evening sessions to dive into the program curriculum, which began with an extensive exploration of Jewish history. 
“When I was in in college and spending my junior year in Israel, I remember always wanting to go back and do more Jewish learning as an adult,” Harper said. “This is that Jewish learning that I always hoped I would have.”
The curriculum also explored the spiritual side of Judaism, which led to a particularly meaningful experience for Epstein.
“In a few of our sessions about prayer we, as a group and as individuals, learned how to create our own prayers,” she said. “It kind of changes your outlook on prayer in general.”
“I think some of our cohort came to it most excited about the leadership part, and others of us came to it most excited about the Jewish learning part. I was definitely the latter,” Moore said. “They were both totally compelling and incredibly valuable.”
There was a significant amount of overlap between those areas of focus. Malka recalled a study session with a Rabbi where the cohort delved deeper into the story of the Exodus and focused on the personalities involved. 
“We really got to know the characters,” Malka explained, “and then he asked us, ‘If you’re electing a new board member, which of these characters would you choose for your board and why?’”
Rabbi David Russo, director of the Heritage program for The Wexner Foundation, said that he was impressed with how Portland’s cohort took to the material. 
“They really pushed each other and encouraged each other with their thinking,” he explained. “Whether reading of Jewish text or thinking about their ideas for what the Jewish future could look like, they did that so thoughtfully with each other.”
The Wexner program centers on adaptive leadership – a new concept for many in this year’s cohort. Frankel explained it as “looking at things from a different perspective and finding solutions. But more than that, it’s identifying what are the problems and asking the questions to get there.”
“Adaptive leadership is really coming up with the why and the who,” Epstein said. “Who are the stakeholders? It’s going to be more of a conversation and ongoing, and there’s no easy fix.”
While the terminology of adaptive leadership is new, Harper saw its ideas reflected throughout rabbinical tradition.
“Our first rabbis, they were trying to make decisions that would keep our people together, that would create continuity and make our tradition relevant and meaningful,” Harper said. “Here we are today, still trying to continue that effort.”
The cohort made two trips together – to Israel in 2022 and to Utah last month to conclude the program.
“Our connection to each other was elevated, our connection to the program was elevated,” Malka said of the Israel trip. “That trip was above and beyond.” 
“We celebrated an absolutely beautiful Shabbat in Jerusalem,” Moore recalled. “That was really meaningful, really special.”
Malka recalled gathering with the rest of the cohort at the rooftop pool at their lodgings in Jerusalem one day, discussing the different experiences the group had that day. “We were in the pool for five or six hours,” she said. “We just had the best time. It was so fun.”
While different parts of the program resonated differently with each person, a universal theme in discussions of the Wexner Heritage experience was the sense of connection they came to feel with each other. The participants spent four hours together every other week during the regular program sessions, first on Zoom and then in person, and nearly three weeks away from home together in Israel and Utah, learning about Judaism and leadership, but also about each other and themselves. 
“We really bonded,” Frankel said. “I certainly have some lifelong friendships out of it, a lot of friends going into the program and even stronger friends coming out of the program.”
“We just formed these really tight friendships and relationships that we would not have found each other had we not gone together through this program,” Moore said. “All of these relationships with one another, I think we’re all extremely hopeful that will be of benefit to the Jewish community for a long time.”
It’s a bond that quickly extended beyond the classroom and into the real world. Epstein’s stepfather passed away during the program, and she was touched when others from the Wexner cohort came to the shiva. 
“If someone from my Wexner program asked me to do something, the answer is yes, and I know it goes the other way around,” Epstein said. “There’s always someone in your corner.”
Though this was Rabbi Russo’s first cohort as head of the Heritage program, he could immediately tell that this bunch of Portlanders had a powerful connection to one another, and he’s looking forward to watching what that connection can do for Jewish life in Portland. 
“They feel especially connected to each other and are really looking to support each other with what lies ahead,” he said.
With the official program over, the newly-minted Wexner graduates are eager to put that they’ve learned to use. 
“Utah wasn’t the end, it was just the end of the learning,” Malka said. “Now it’s the start of the doing.”
“We really left the program energetic and excited about what is coming next,” Epstein said. “Not like we have one singular big project that’s going to fix Jewish Portland, but we do have a lot of really smart, beautiful, spiritual plans that we want to involve the whole community.”
A number of the graduates expressed thanks to their families for supporting them through the rigorous program, and for those who made the program possible. The Wexner Heritage Program was operated in Portland without cost to the participants thanks to contributions from the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation and a number of individual donors. 
“I just would definitely like to express so much gratitude to the Portland Jewish community that made it possible for Wexner to come here,” Moore said. “You know, this was a huge a huge commitment from Federation and Wexner to allow the 20 of us to have this experience together, and we I know that we all are really hopeful and optimistic about our ability to kind of repay the debt of what we got to experience for the last two years together by doing good things in the community.”
“I’m very grateful to our community actually for supporting this program,” Harper added “I feel a lot of gratitude to our community for investing in all of us.”


Add Comment