How to be a Jewish leader 101: Locals bone up on tradition

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Susan Lowenberg has no illusions about the religious education that many of the Bay Area's Jewish leaders received as children.

"We're all mavens, all big shots. But we don't know our head from our tush about fundamental Jewish history and Torah study. It's a huge void," said the 37-year-old San Francisco resident who serves on the boards of several Jewish organizations.

Lowenberg and about 100 other Bay Area Jews, however, are trying to make up for the past. They are students in an intense, two-year Jewish literacy program paid for entirely by the Wexner Heritage Foundation in New York.

They attend four-hour seminars every other week taught by some of the country's top Jewish thinkers, who are flown into the Bay Area for the courses. They read up to 100 pages of Jewish history, theology or philosophy to prepare for each session. And they try to apply their new knowledge to their day-to-day lives and activities in the Jewish community.

"It's like doing a master's in Jewish studies," said Rabbi Nathan Laufer, the foundation's president.

Or as Lowenberg puts it: "This is sort of a mini yeshiva for us."

The program's goal is simple but lofty: The foundation hopes that educating Jewish leaders in their 30s and 40s about their tradition will inspire them to build a more promising future for American Jewry.

"History doesn't just happen. Single individuals make history," Laufer said recently. "They learn they have an opportunity to help make history with their leadership."

Laufer's enthusiasm and idealism are apparently infectious. Bay Area students, who were accepted after a long application process, can't praise the program enough. Nationally, the program's dropout rate has hovered around 5 percent.

"It's one of the most extraordinary things I've ever participated in. The quality of education is so high," said student Ellen Kahn, a 41-year-old Greenbrae resident who co-chairs the capital campaign for the Union of American Hebrew Congregation's Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and serves on the Jewish Bulletin's board.

Participants, most of whom have been board members or presidents of synagogues, day schools, federations and pro-Israel groups, aren't afraid to admit their peers lack religious knowledge.

"As one who's been very involved, I've seen a striking dearth of Yiddishkeit and Jewish understanding. I think we ought to understand why we're doing what we're doing," said student Howard Zack, 40, of Tiburon, who serves on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee regional board and co-chairs the capital committee for Tiburon's Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar.

Right now, five groups of about 20 each are wrapping up this year's work in the Bay Area. Oakland's group is finishing its two-year cycle, though individuals are planning to continue studying together on an informal basis. Four groups with participants from San Francisco, the North Bay and the South Bay have another year to go.

In the program's first year, students learn Jewish history from ancient times to the present. In the second year, they soak up Jewish thought. They study Bible, Talmud and the prayerbook, as well as philosophers such as Maimonides and Martin Buber.

Each summer, they spend about a week at retreat paid for by Wex-ner. Today, the students are returning from a 10-day retreat in Israel.

There are no exams, but at the program's end students write ethical wills — to their children, if they have any — that explain what Judaism means to them.

The apparent benevolence of the Wexner Heritage Foundation grew out of its namesake's feelings of inadequacy. Around 1980, someone asked Leslie Wexner, best known as founder of The Limited clothing empire, to lead the United Jewish Appeal's national fund-raising campaign.

"That would be like me asking you to become head of The Limited," Wexner reportedly responded.

Laufer said Wexner realized that many top Jewish leaders are "empty suits" who "look great on the outside…but don't have the knowledge to be good Jewish leaders."

This experience led to creation of the Wexner Heritage Foundation and its seven-figure annual budget for educating Jewish leaders. More than 700 have completed the program so far.

Professor Arnold Eisen, Stanford's chair of religious studies, is one of a half-dozen Bay Area academics who teach Wexner courses.

He said he sees "great significance" in the program because he believes Jewish leaders need historical and spiritual perspective to steer the community ahead.

"To be a Jewish leader now is not merely to manage resources capably, but to be a role model of a new kind of Jew, a learned Jew who is choosing knowledgeably."

Unfortunately, it's too late for any more Bay Area Jews to get involved. The program, which has hopped across the map to 27 American cities in the past 12 years, will head to Los Angeles next.

There are no strings attached to taking part in Wexner's program. But Laufer hopes leaders who get a taste of a decent Jewish education will go on to create or strengthen day schools, summer camps, Israel trips, Hillels and adult classes.

Lowenberg, for example, expects concrete results locally. She wants to help build a new Jewish day school and high school in San Francisco.

Other students were less specific about how their participation might transform the Bay Area's Jewish community, but they believe something good will come out of it.

"There will be a synergistic effect. When you have a group of core leadership that has devoted time together in study, it creates an intellectual kinship," said student Neil Taxy, a 41-year-old Oakland resident, board member of the Oakland Hebrew Day School and active member of Oakland's Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation.

Like most of their fellow students, Lowenberg, Taxy and Kahn are no strangers to Jewish activity.

Besides serving on the board of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the AIPAC regional chapter and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, Lowenberg co-chairs the capital campaign for Camp Newman.

Yet Lowenberg said that before Wexner, she didn't know the biblical basis for tzedakah (charity).

"I now look at the Torah as a moral road map," she said.

Kahn, who majored in Jewish studies as an undergraduate, has found modern parallels to historical Jewish experiences.

A section on 19th-century Judaism, for example, focused on the effect of emancipation on Europe's Jews.

"The problem these people faced was: How do you continue as a Jew in a society that welcomes you?" said Kahn, an active member of San Rafael's Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom and the wife of Rabbi Doug Kahn.

"The questions for the 19th-century Jew may not be so different from the questions for the 20th-century Jew."

As a result of her studies, Kahn wants to infuse Jewish gatherings with Judaism, such as starting a synagogue budget meeting with a prayer to help people make tough decisions.

"It's not just a business you're running. It's a holy place."

Claudia Valas, 44, of Berkeley, a former president of the city's Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom and president of a Hebrew learning-materials company, has "gained respect for Jews of all denominations."

Zack, whose wife, Diane, is also enrolled in Wexner, believes his three young children are the chief beneficiaries of his involvement.

"I see myself in large measure as a go-between for my children and Judaism," Zack said.

Taxy, whose wife, Marlee, is also in Wexner, has likewise found new enthusiasm. "You end up not only renewing the sense of what you do in the community," he said, "but also the desire and need for continued lifelong learning."