Major philanthropic foundations play a central role in American Jewish life today, but it wasn’t always so.
The Wexner Foundation, initiated and still led by Columbus, Ohio, businessman Les Wexner, began three decades ago with a specific goal that remains at the core of its now diverse portfolio: to identify and train future Jewish leaders.
In many ways it remains the model for other Jewish foundations, known for its emphasis on excellence in professional staff and educational experiences, its commitment to diversity and inclusion and to fostering what Larry Moses, a former president of the foundation, calls a “culture of collaboration” among its lay and professional alumni.
This past spring, a two-day celebration marking the 30th anniversary of the foundation was held in Columbus, attracting (many at their own expense) some 1,500 alumni of the various Wexner programs who came to show their appreciation for what many described as the gift of being a Wexner fellow. Also in attendance at the program, under the leadership of foundation president Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, were a number of scholars and Jewish professionals who teach in the program, and dignitaries, including former Israeli President Shimon Peres.
In keeping with the nature of Wexner programs, the event featured Torah study sessions, addresses on various aspects of leadership by alumni who are now prominent in a variety of fields, and late-night conversations on topics ranging from the environment to social justice, philanthropy, Jewish life on campus, and innovations in Jewish education.
In a recent (and rare) interview with The Jewish Week, Wexner, 78, perhaps best known as the founder, chairman and CEO of The Limited (now L Brands), reflected on his vision of creating “a sacred society,” his mentors, his pride in the foundation’s accomplishments, his ongoing frustration with the Jewish Establishment, and his advice on how to secure a strong future for the community.
Early on in his involvement with Jewish organizations, while in his 30s, Wexner sensed “a real leadership void,” he told me. “I thought that they were into funding, and no one focused on leadership and strategy. We didn’t do it as a community. And if there is success in our foundation it is that we stayed close to our core: develop leaders.”
While Wexner and his wife, Abigail, whom he married in 1993, remain major supporters of federations, their primary focus in Jewish philanthropy is the foundation, in which they have invested nearly $1 billion.
Since 1985, when the first Wexner Heritage class of 16 potential lay leaders was formed in Columbus, nearly 2,000 young men and women, carefully chosen and screened, have completed the two-year program from almost 100 cohorts in 33 different communities in the U.S. They have been taught and guided by some of the finest Jewish scholars and professionals from the U.S. and Israel whose goal is to provide a deeper Jewish knowledge base and inspire their charges to take on leadership roles in Jewish life, however the participants choose to do so.
Around the same time Wexner, addressing a need for leadership in Jewish professional life, launched a fellowship program for future rabbis, cantors, academics, educators and others in graduate school fields that strengthen Jewish community. Twenty students a year are chosen, and in addition to funding for tuition, they are offered mentoring and peer networks. Close to 500 people are alumni or current students in the program, which now partners with the William Davidson Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation.
In 1989, the Wexner Israel Fellowship program was created, offering mid-level Israeli public officials a year of study for a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. More than 240 Israeli public leaders have completed the program. And in the last two years Wexner has founded a leadership program at the Kennedy School for potential and senior Israeli leaders, and a service corps for Jewish teens in Columbus, an initiative of the Wexners’ daughters, Hannah and Sarah.
Although Les Wexner is a self-made global business leader with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $7.7 billion, he keeps a relatively low profile in Jewish life and comes across in conversation as modest, and a bit shy, a product of his Midwestern roots.
He spoke of his deep appreciation for the staff, educators and alumni involved in the foundation’s programs, and the gratitude he felt on being with the 1,500 participants at the anniversary celebration a few months ago.
“Abigail and I have got more than we’ve given, and certainly energy from you,” he told the assembled at the closing ceremony last spring.
It is clear that Wexner’s approach to philanthropy is based on his success in business, which is credited with originating the concept of specialized retailing. (Thus, the launching of “The Limited” when others were establishing department stores selling a wide variety of products.)
“As a businessman I knew that any enterprise is only as strong as the vision and talent of its leadership,” he says. “The same is true within the Jewish community and its institutions.”
Wexner mentioned Max Fisher, who died at 97 in 2005, the Detroit businessman and senior Jewish statesman who was a major donor to the Republican Party, as a major influence. “He cared, he was thoughtful and he was consistent; he was always there,” he said. “Leaders can’t get up [when they’re upset] and march out of the room. Max was patient, with a sense of rethinking and renewal.”
Rabbi Herbert Friedman, who died at 90 in 2008, was the first president of the foundation, a man with grand ideas and the ability to fulfill them. It was Rabbi Friedman who created the young leadership program and missions to Israel for national UJA when he was CEO, and was instrumental in doing the same at Wexner. Three decades ago, “it was a landmark decision” to hire a professional like Rabbi Friedman to run a Jewish foundation, Wexner recalled, and soon others followed.
Harvard professor and administrator Henry Rosovsky is credited with advising Wexner to “never compromise on quality” and to build his foundation slowly, being willing to stay with a project for the long term. “We are patient,” Wexner said of his philanthropic, and business, approach.
The only time in our conversation when he sounded impatient was when he described the national Jewish organizations’ resistance to leadership development and experimentation.
“It’s nonsense to say that federations can’t experiment, and it’s stupid to give them more money than they’re giving themselves,” Wexner said, adding that he was never approached, in the early years, to provide matching funds for federation projects. “Everyone was too busy raising money” to focus on the need for next-generation leadership.
For all of his major support of national Jewish groups, Wexner noted that “big organizations are hard to change and renew.” He believes that reinvention starts with local communities, not from the top down, and that the need for a fresh approach and experimentation is constant; otherwise established institutions — businesses or Jewish organizations — “will become obsolete,” he said.
Wexner is an advocate of a positive approach, in business and in Jewish life, especially at a time when there is much concern about a diminished American Jewish future. He said that when one is “on a low floor on the mood elevator, it seems there is no hope, all is lost, and you become the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Optimism, he asserted, should be based on a strong sense of values, solid research and a culture of bold leadership.
“The trends today point to intermarriage and assimilation, but everyone knew it 30 years ago,” Wexner said. “You need process to find strengths and weaknesses” and a commitment to apply thoughtful policies.
A lifelong reader, he requires business associates to read books on leadership and discuss them, and he would like to see Jewish groups training leaders from within, ensuring that they live up to the group’s values.
“We should be calling on strategic thinkers, but we get immobilized and paralyzed. We should be doing rather than waiting for Godot or the Messiah.”
Someone, he said, will come up with the right idea, but when that happens, “our institutions need the flexibility to change.”
Wexner hopes that his growing networks of talented, influential and committed alumni will overlap and interact with each other, working in concert to find solutions to the problems of the day.
“There’s no utility being a pessimist,” he said. “We as a people have a 5,000-year history of navigating” between realism and idealism.
As for his own legacy, he said he doesn’t think about it. “Nonsense — I worry about what I do today.” It’s “the good institutions that endure,” he said confidently.
His track record, entering a fourth decade through the foundation, remains a template for efforts to educate and inspire tomorrow’s leaders today.