Unlimited Learning

It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and a group of well-dressed men and women have gathered in the swank board room of a Beverly Hills talent agency. On the long marble conference table in front of them are stacks of academic books. After a few moments of small talk while latecomers get settled, Professor Benjamin Gampel launches into the evening’s topic: “Enlightenment and Emancipation in Western Europe and the Varied Jewish Responses to Modernity.” For the next four hours, interrupted only briefly by a dinner break, students and instructor will grapple with the 19th century forces that gave rise to modern Judaism. The far-ranging discussion will veer at times into current hot- button issues, like “English-only” ballot initiatives, Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians and the Jonathan Pollard case. At 9:30 p.m. the students will exchange goodbyes, reactivate their cell phones and go back to their separate lives as attorneys, bankers, arts administrators and media execs.

It’s all part of a nation-wide experiment in adult education known as the Wexner Heritage Foundation. The students in the Beverly Hills board room have been hand-picked to participate in the two-year, all-expenses-paid program, which includes a series of bimonthly study sessions and three summer institutes. The faculty is made up of leading Jewish scholars who often jet cross-country to preside over Wexner seminars.

Benjamin Gampel, a historian at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, speaks enthusiastically about his Wexner students: “The Wexner Program is probably the best adult teaching that I can do. They’re highly motivated; they’re so successful in their chosen fields, they bring that energy to the classroom. It’s thrilling.” And the students are equally lavish in their praise. Rae Janvey, who participated in the program from 1992 through 1994, speaks for many, insisting that “one of the blessings of my life is the gift of Wexner.”

The seeds for the Wexner Heritage Foundation were sown in the 1980s, when Les Wexner, founder and chairman of The Limited, Inc. (parent company of Express and other upscale clothing stores), was asked by members of a major Jewish fund-raising organization to take on a leadership role. Feeling that his own lack of Jewish education disqualified him from effective community service, Wexner ultimately decided to help promising young Jewish men and women get the background needed to be the Jewish leaders of the future. Beginning in 1985 in Wexner’s home town of Columbus, Ohio, his foundation has annually chosen a group of people between the ages of 30 and 45, who have demonstrated leadership potential and who are willing to commit to a rigorous schedule of classes.

By now, the program has visited every major urban center where American Jews congregate; the Los Angeles participants (80 in all) came aboard last summer and will officially be involved through the summer of 1999, when they will travel to Israel for a 10-day stay. Part of the Wexner agenda is to make Judaism come alive for community activists who may never have formally immersed themselves in Jewish history and thought. Donna Bojarsky, a Los Angeles public policy consultant with a long record of community service, admits that she was not prepared for the impact that study would have on her: “I knew I lacked the education, but I didn’t know how stimulating and powerful it was going to be.”

Others with richer Jewish educational backgrounds are still grateful for this chance to see the big picture. And everyone acknowledges the value of Wexner’s pluralistic approach, which makes room for Jews from many traditions and with many orientations. As attorney Howard Szabo puts it, “Wexner gives people from diverse communities a common base of knowledge.” The result has been the development of deep personal bonds that transcend political and denominational allegiances, and that may augur a more open-minded approach to Jewish community issues in the future.

The selectiveness of the Wexner Program is both an asset and a drawback. For the 80 Los Angeles slots, Wexner solicited more than 1,000 nominees from a wide range of synagogues and community institutions. With these odds, it’s no surprise that many well-qualified people ended up with letters of rejection. Rumors persist that some Wexnerites make the cut because of their financial status. When marketing specialist Gary Wexler learned that he was among the chosen, his first thought was that “I’m sure it’s 79 wealthy people and me.” And more than one participant has expressed dismay that worthy friends and colleagues have been excluded. Julie Platt, who works tirelessly for Federation and her children’s day school, confesses that “there are many of my peers who’ve made equal contributions that I’m sorry not to be sharing this with.”

Still, Platt insists, “every single person who’s at the table deserves to be there.” Gampel believes that because of the program’s exclusivity, participants have a special incentive to give it their all: “Some of them feel really privileged that they were chosen.” But, Gampel says, although many Wexnerites are hugely successful in their professional lives, “when the doors are closed, I never get a sense of elitism.” Gampel does admit that some of Los Angeles’ Wexner groups are colored by the proximity of Hollywood.

Rabbi Nathan Laufer, who heads the Wexner Heritage Foundation, does not shy away from the fact that his selection process has reached out to entertainment industry leaders, because “Hollywood helps to shape the thinking of all of America.” For Laufer, money spent on enriching the Jewish background of Hollywood professionals is a worthwhile investment, “even if all they end up doing is taking their Jewish knowledge and making a movie or a TV show.” True, it is the Hollywood insiders’ tendency to travel frequently and do much of their business between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. that sometimes translates into spotty attendance at Wexner seminars. But Gampel and other professors have no complaints about how this theoretically exotic subgroup fits into the program as a whole.

Certainly, none of the entertainment industry types within Wexner fit the popular image of the slick Hollywood hipster; all of them, like producer Tom Barad, “want to find a meaningful relationship with being Jewish,” as a way to enhance their own lives. Julie Platt, whose husband, Marc, is a veteran studio exec, puts the matter in perspective: “If [the number of Hollywood participants] seems unbalanced, it’s because L.A. is unbalanced.” By definition, Wexnerites are leaders-in-the-making. Yet the program deliberately avoids focusing on s
trategic leadership skills, making the assumption that it’s up to the individual Wexner graduate to translate ideas into action. As Laufer puts it, “leaders will lead.”

This emphasis on the intellectual at the expense of the practical makes some Wexnerites impatient to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Larry Greenfield, vice president of Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Foundation, asks plaintively, “What do I do with all this knowledge, if I don’t know people to apply it with?”

But Bojarsky believes that the national scope of Wexner works in its favor. Bojarsky has discovered in her business travels that being a part of Wexner gives her an automatic link to scores of other Wexner alumni. She predicts that in the long term the program will produce “a cadre of people that know each other and will want to create together.” On the local front, Bojarsky admits that in a community as widely dispersed as Los Angeles, it’s always harder to make a difference. Still, she’s hopeful: “Maybe Wexner can bring people together in common purpose.”

That is exactly what has happened in cities that are home to Wexner alumni. Laufer reels off a list of new institutions built by Wexnerites: a day school in Atlanta, a synagogue in Chicago, Hillel buildings at Harvard and Yale. There have been intangible achievements too, like the evolution of Houston’s Jewish leadership development program along Wexner lines. Wexner nurtures its graduates by offering them an e-mail network, a newsletter and a series of regional retreats. One result is that important connections are being made: a community day school in Columbus, Ohio, began as a series of conversations between Ohioans and New Yorkers at an alumni retreat in Snowbird, Utah. That is why Rae Janvey foresees current Wexner grads being called upon to serve as mentors for future generations of Wexnerites: “Alumni should be together. We stimulate each other.”

The Wexner Heritage Foundation also promises its alumni help in organizing opportunities for further study. The San Diego group is typical of many, continuing to meet at its own expense since it finished its formal Wexner term in 1996. In addition, Todd Kobernick has joined with other San Diego alumni in working to spread serious Jewish education beyond the chosen few. The idea is to extend it to movers and shakers throughout his local community, in order “to get us out of pediatric Judaism, where some of us have been stuck.”

Wexner’s focus on substantive adult education is seen by Jonathan Sarna, Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, as its most significant contribution to Jewish life in America today. It is not true, Sarna warns, that Wexner single-handedly created a revolution in adult learning. But because Wexner came along when an affluent Jewish population was thirsting for a meaningful connection with its heritage and had the leisure to pursue serious study, he credits it with being “the right program at the right time.”

For Sarna, one measure of Wexner’s success is that it is so frequently imitated. By way of example, he cites the Melton Mini-School Programs in Chicago and Cincinnati, as well as Boston’s Meah (meaning “100”), a thriving organization that encourages adults to commit to 100 hours of high-level Jewish learning. When Sarna was asked to speak at a newly organized seminar series in a New York suburb, his hostess announced that “we’ve all been suffering from Wexner envy.”

If Jewish study is suddenly becoming chic, if communities are accepting the notion that Jewish leadership requires learning and not simply wealth, then Les Wexner’s multimillion-dollar investment will have paid ample dividends.

Alan and Lisa Stern: Expanding Their Circle

Among Los Angeles’ Wexner participants, there are perhaps 10 who consider themselves strictly Orthodox. Two are Alan and Lisa Stern of Hancock Park. Alan Stern, an importer of nuts and dried fruit, feels that Wexner has granted him and his wife “a wonderful opportunity to meet with people from outside our circle.” Though it’s a given that in many quarters there is no love lost between traditional Jews and those who lead more secular lives, Stern has found in his Wexner seminar group “really close friendships that I believe will last many years after the program is over.”

For Stern, one of Wexner’s biggest achievements is “it causes you to take stock of your life and of your goals and ambitions. It forces you to accept the fact that you have communal responsibilities.” Stern, who actively supports Bar Ilan University, the Orthodox Union and Yavneh Hebrew Academy, cannot be accused of aloofness from worthy causes. But since his involvement with Wexner, he has been far more open to taking bold action. In February, the Sterns filed “the largest individual lawsuit ever filed” against an Italian insurance company, Assicurazioni Generali, which they accuse of failing to honor policies dating back to the World War II era. Their suit has resulted in landmark California legislation that should aid other families of Holocaust victims in collecting funds long overdue.

Born and raised in England, Stern had a rigorous Orthodox education until age 20. Despite his background, the Wexner seminars have taught him a good deal: “The learning has filled a lot of gaps in my knowledge. Jewish history has begun to make sense.” Stern’s wife, attorney Lisa Stern, approaches the Wexner program from a vastly different starting point. She grew up in a secular Orange County household “where the only reference to Judaism was negative.” Though she adopted Orthodoxy upon meeting and marrying Alan, and though she has always shared in his community activism, she was secretly embarrassed by her Judaic ignorance, especially the fact she could barely tell an alef from a bet. Lisa confides that “it’s difficult to admit illiteracy and do something about it. It didn’t happen for 15 years, until Wexner came along.”

Today, buoyed by the Wexner program, Lisa has taken steps to master basic Jewish knowledge. She has also found new satisfaction in serving the Jewish community as a whole, through her membership on two key Federation committees. For Lisa Stern, there’s been “a marriage of my personal life, my professional life and now my community life. And Wexner has been the shadchan.” —Beverly Gray

Marc and Julie Platt: Balancing Act

The Platts could well be considered one of Los Angeles’ young power couples. Julie, who chairs the school board at Sinai Akiba Academy, is also active in the Federation’s Women’s Campaign and at Camp Ramah. Marc has long been part of the inner circle at Sinai Temple and the Federation, where he was instrumental in revitalizing the entertainment division. Together they started “L.A. Couples,” as a way to introduce young marrieds to Jewish community life.

Julie Platt was reared in a home where service to the community was a family tradition: “I’m one of those people who was born with a pledge card in my hand.” But her small Kansas town offered little in the way of meaningful Jewish study. Wexner is giving her the in-depth education she needs to complement her social commitment. When she speaks before community groups, “I now feel I have so much more to say.” For her, the Wexner experience has not led to new brands of activism. Instead, the program “has reinforced my beliefs that I’m spending my time in a way that I’m proud of.”

Marc Platt, who until recently was president of production at Universal Pictures, has sometimes found it hard to juggle his Jewish affiliations and his career. He is the first to admit that “a lot of Hollywood is very uncomfortable with religion.” But his own choice has been to take Judaism seriously, both in terms of observance and social involvement, and he sees the Wexner program as effectively deepening the sense of obligation he already feels. Ultimately, says Platt, “Wexner’s not about regurgitating the information you’ve learned. It’s more about being inspired and provoked” into taking creative action. Platt, who’s dealt with his share of luminaries, can’t say enough about the contribution of Les Wexner to modern American Jewish life: “Les Wexner is a real star. He asks for nothing in return. Except your commitment.” —Beverly Gray

Michael Tolkin: Making an Impact

In Hollywood terms, Michael Tolkin would be deemed a “player.” In fact, he was Oscar-nominated for writing “The Player,” the trenchant Hollywood satire that director Robert Altman turned into a tour-de-force film back in 1992. But Tolkin believes that his near-celebrity status had no special impact on the Wexner selection team. He feels he was chosen because of his years of Torah study with Rabbi Daniel Landes, and because two films he both wrote and directed, “The Rapture” and “The New Age,” revealed that he is “theologically inclined.” (He also has a screenplay credit on the current science-fiction hit, “Deep Impact.”)

Tolkin stresses that he is not a community leader in a conventional sense: “I have the least connection to any Jewish infrastructure, but I guess they thought it was a good idea to have one artist in the group.” He jokes that his involvement with Wexner has not convinced him to run for a Federation office. Still, “Wexner goaded me into being more directly active in my own community.” The result: he funded a new program that brought Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea onto the campus of Temple Emanuel Community Day School, where Tolkin’s children are enrolled. Kanefsky’s mandate was to introduce the Emanuel faculty and staff to Orthodox perspectives on lashon hara, the rules of civil speech. In this way, Tolkin feels he has contributed to Jewish survival by taking modest steps toward fostering interdenominational study. —Beverly Gray