The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s leadership training program, Entwine, and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion have announced a new Fellowship for Global Leaders, open to the school’s rabbinical, cantorial and education students. The program, established by philanthropist Jane Weitzman, a JDC board member, and her husband, shoe designer Stuart Weitzman, will train 15 men and women over the next five years, through a specially developed curriculum and visits to the 70 countries where the JDC operates.
The Jewish Week interviewed Ms. Weitzman by email; this is an edited transcript.
Q.: The Jewish community already has a wide range of leadership training programs. What is new or distinctive about yours?
A.: We want to educate our future Jewish religious leaders about global Jewish life, something that continues to fall below our communal radar. If they learn about Jewish poverty as well as community building in countries that JDC serves around the world, they will be able to teach their future students about our responsibility to one another as Jews.
This program is geared to HUC students. Is there a special need for such leadership training in the Reform movement?
No, but HUC was the first school to respond to my concerns.
You are widely known for your expertise in fashion, particularly shoes. How do you balance your interest in that with your involvement in philanthropy?
Actually, Stuart is the one who still has the connection to the fashion world. He also shares my interest in Jewish and other philanthropy, but is still working for the company that he founded. I retired when we sold the company over three years ago. Shortly after that, when my book, “Art & Sole,” was published, I started speaking to many different kinds of charities, [including] to women’s philanthropy [groups] at Jewish federations all over the country, about my concern for the future of Jewish giving.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “It’s wonderful to save whales but you also have to save Jews.” What are your philanthropic priorities in the Jewish community?
I said that when I learned that most bar and bat mitzvah projects do not benefit Jewish causes. If the students don’t learn to take care of their fellow Jews in Hebrew school, where will they learn? They can learn about all of the other wonderful charities at school, online, on TV, or from their friends.
First of all, we must take care of the basics, both here and abroad. There are Holocaust survivors and other elderly Jews who need our help. For the first time since World War II, we have displaced Jews (in Ukraine). There are Jewish children who need to be fed, clothed, and sheltered – they are our responsibility. For the most part, if we don’t help these people, no one else will, especially at a time when donations to Jewish organizations have gone way down.
I am also interested in Jewish culture and education. I am a vice president of the Jewish Book Council, and on the board of 70 Faces Media. I care very much about my own Jewish community and I serve on the boards of both our UJA and JCC.
You and your husband created a school in Israel where a third of the students have to be Ethiopian. Where does your interest in Ethiopian Jewry come from?
I grew up in Atlanta and went to segregated schools. I know the terrible price that a society pays when there is discrimination, as well as the injustice to those discriminated against. The children in our education initiative, whose families come from many countries, such as Libya, Iran, Syria and India, as well as Ethiopia, learn about the cultures of the other kids from the parents who come to school and teach about their own customs. Our school project (with the Bat Yam Public School System) is in its ninth year. It started out a third Ethiopian, but the number has gone down as some of the Ethiopians moved to other cities.