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Walking Willingly: Reflections on the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Mentoring Program

Posted on Friday, July 24, 2015 by Michelle Lynn-Sachs and Jenny Solomon

From her first WGF Institute at Ocean Edge in 1997, Jenny (Solomon, Class 10) was asked if she knew WGFA Michelle Lynn-Sachs (Class 6).  After all, we both hailed from Dallas, Texas. Each of us attended college at Brown University. Raised in actively engaged Reform Jewish homes, we both began our graduate education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  And, if that wasn’t enough, we even share a physical resemblance, with loose auburn curls and abundant freckles.  But, Jenny did not know Michelle, and it would take literally eighteen years (an auspicious number!) until we finally met, thanks to the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Mentoring Program, and the thoughtful matchmaking process shepherded by Cindy Chazan and Rae Ringel.  Though well into her rabbinate (which centers around pastoral work, adult education, and directing a community mikveh), Jenny took on the role of mentee, while Michelle (who currently uses her experience as a Jewish educator and academic in her newly launched professional consulting and coaching business) was chosen as her mentor.  In the words of Jewish tradition, we met b’sha’ah tovah -- at the most well-timed and opportune moment in each of our professional journeys.   

During our recent site visit with one another as part of the mentoring program, we had the opportunity to share with each other some of the frameworks we use for thinking about our work.  We are both very comfortable with the use of metaphor, and we shared a moment of joyful connection when we realized that our grounding metaphors were so compatible.  Jenny often frames her pastoral counseling and teaching by considering about what is galui — revealed and what is nistar — hidden.  Jenny invites her congregants and students to open themselves to exploring both facets of their lives.  The metaphor that animates Michelle and her work as a consultant and leadership coach is that of a moving spotlight, which illuminates new possibilities as it moves across a darkened stage.  By shifting and changing what is illuminated as the spotlight moves, mentor and mentee together discover new solutions, new possibilities, new questions... things that were always present; up until that moment, though, they were simply nistar.

Through the mentoring process, we have implicitly invited one another to “walk willingly” into the relationship and our processes of personal introspection and professional growth.  With open hearts, and an undefined destination, we keep on moving forward -- ever mindful of where we have come from, but deeply committed to moving forward into what might be.  Intentions were set and goals were articulated, but the spotlight keeps on moving.  With gentle nudging and persistence on both of our parts, the growing edges took hold.  For Jenny, it was a gift to bring her vulnerabilities to bear in a way that Michelle safely held yet insistently advanced.  Many times Michelle kindly suggested, “Let’s keep moving forward,” and in those moments, Jenny remarked how those were precisely the times that she would have gotten stuck had she been tackling these ideas and skills on her own.

Some of Jenny’s goals were technological, like developing social media skills and re-imagining her resume.  Other goals were more entrepreneurial — helping Jenny develop a vision for a Jewish women’s online nursing network.  Whether the goals were tactical or visionary in nature, Michelle helped Jenny plot the course forward and insisted Jenny could master whatever she aspired to do.  By literally sitting with Jenny as she took a concrete next step, such as drafting her new resume in a Google doc or choosing a logo for her nursing network, Michelle was able to help Jenny experience success and progress, not just believe that it was possible. 

For Michelle, trusting that it was not only okay but important to make that invitation, “Let’s keep moving forward,” has been an important area for her own professional growth as an independent consultant and coach. Because Michelle’s clients are, like Jenny, colleagues who are capable, accomplished and smart, this experience is a valuable reminder of the balance between following a partner on her path and knowing when to step up and take the lead. 

While the primary foundation of the mentoring relationship is an equal commitment between both individuals, each person has a special and unique responsibility.  As the mentee, Jenny is responsible for setting her own agenda; as the mentor, Michelle’s job is to hold her to it.  Working with someone as accomplished and thoughtful as Jenny, it would be easy for Michelle to just let her lead the way all the time; it’s been a tremendous gift for Michelle to be pushed to step up and sometimes take charge, knowing that doing so is the gift she brings to Jenny in their relationship.  

Through the process of meeting, we discovered how the WGF alumni community is particularly well-suited to a dynamic and rewarding mentoring relationship. Our shared Wexner language, culture and collection of experiences created a foundation upon which we have moved through the work at hand with understanding and attunement that both enrich and expedite our growth.  The Wexner alumni framework is highly conducive to a safe, productive mentoring relationship.  Our year's not half over yet, but we both know that we will continue to nurture this relationship beyond the formal parameters of this program.

Participating in this program has been a blessing and gift for both of us.  It is an extraordinary way to pay it forward and grow professionally — both as a mentor and as a mentee.  We are deeply grateful to The Wexner Foundation’s Mentoring Program, to The Jim Joseph Foundation which helped fund the program, and to the leaders of The Wexner Foundation for creating a space for us to grow as mentor/mentee, as Jewish professionals, and as human beings.

Dr. Michelle Lynn-Sachs, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 6), founded Spotlight Consulting and Coaching to help congregations and other faith-based organizations shine through customized leadership development, coaching and strategic consulting. Before founding Spotlight, Michelle held consulting, faculty and senior leadership positions at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Experiment in Congregational Education and Holy Blossom Temple. Michelle is a proud alumna of Brown University (AB), the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR (MAJE) and New York University (PhD). She completed the coach training program at the Coaches Training Institute. Michelle can be reached at michelle@spotlightcc.com.


Rabbi Dr. Jenny Solomon, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 10), serves as rabbi at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is also the founding director of Libi Eir Awakened Heart Community Mikveh, where all Jews are welcomed to mark the sacred transitions in their lives with a modern sensibility and ancient Jewish wisdom. Jenny has recorded two musical projects: Tefilot Ha’Lev (Prayers of the Heart) and Shira!, a compilation of music for young children and has published numerous articles on mikveh, parenting and Jewish contemplative practice. Fulfilling a professional dream to educate and support Jewish moms, Rabbi Solomon is launching “Yanika: A Jewish Women’s On-Line Nursing Network” in the coming year. Jenny received her undergraduate degree from Brown University, was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and completed a doctorate in counseling from the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health. She can be reached at rabbijsolomon@gmail.com.