It has been reported that in 1914 Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook visited London’s National Gallery and became enamored with Rembrandt’s works of artistic genius. In Rembrandt, Rav Kook saw “a tsaddik, a truly righteous person,” whose works reminded him “of the legend of the creation of light.” Kook explained that this was a “light so strong and luminous that it lit up one end of the world to the other.” And to protect the world from those who would use it for evil, God secreted it away in certain humans who were privileged with the ability to harness that very light. And Rembrandt was one of those very special beings.
It’s with these words that we launched the Wexner Heritage Program “Madregot” (steps) Summer Institute. I chose this anecdote because I am deeply moved by what Rav Kook sees as the potential of human creativity and innovation as derived from God’s creation of the world and humanity in God’s image. What Rav Kook sees in human potential inspires me to see the potential of that light as harnessed by each of our members in service of their constant striving to be better leaders. The notion that volunteer leaders see themselves as creators, designers and innovators inspired the themes of the Institute.
Using the learnable skills of Design Thinking and the tools of innovative and visual thinking, this Institute asked of our participants a very different type of learning and doing than is typical of Wexner Heritage Institute experiences. For many, it was inspiring and productive while deeply challenging, even pushing some to the limits of productive discomfort.
Design Thinking methodology stresses “user experience” and requires the designer to research every aspect of the customer’s needs and to envision how they can be met by the new or improved product (program, solution, experience). Our core curriculum required participants to practice through deep questioning and open-minded listening to glean the essence of their users’ — or imagined users’ — needs. Participants then moved from empathy to ideation, drawing upon their observations in order to experiment and prototype. We also tried hard to provide an environment of fun, complete with an evening of creative exploration including film, finger painting, pantomime, journaling and much more. Levity is an essential ingredient in cultivating innovation and relaxing the counterproductive tension usually associated with problem-solving. Spending a day at the summit of the mountain, with an expansive view of what felt like the top of the world, our leader-designers collaborated and created, played, sang and probed, drawing upon their unique gifts for the sake of the Jewish people. Many were able to have breakthroughs dreaming up exciting new ideas, both big and small, from new ways of connecting volunteers to volunteer experiences, to bringing comedians and rabbis together to enhance the humor and Jewish depth of both and to inventing new approaches to elicit communal giving. They envisioned new ways of connecting to Israel, practiced how to tell their stories, created visualizations of the Torah, probed what makes them authentic leaders, built rapid and rough prototypes and so much more.
While the outcomes of this Institute are still to be evaluated over time, there is no doubt that this Institute felt like a bold experiment in many ways for the Wexner Heritage Program. Many of the core ingredients remained: strong, deep Torah learning, inspiring tefillah, deeply engaged and committed volunteer leaders and top-notch faculty. In fact, seven of ten faculty were new to the Wexner Heritage Program and in addition to being rabbis, scholars and experts, many were also seriously committed artists and designers.
This new conception of “Madregot”, was largely a response to the requests of those at the center of our work — our members — who have been asking for opportunities to address and respond to the real, practical leadership challenges they work on.
It is our hope that these skills will push members to break through cognitive fixedness and institutional entrenchment, while inspiring and reinvigorating them. We are eager to see how this learning will influence the leadership of participants and how we can iterate the effort to continue to respond to the changing needs of contemporary Jewish leadership.
Rabbi Benjamin Berger is a Program Director at The Wexner Foundation, where he works closely with the President of the Foundation on a variety of special projects and new initiatives in development, as well as with the Wexner Heritage Program. Ben comes to The Wexner Foundation from down the street at The Ohio State University Hillel Foundation, where he was Senior Jewish Educator for a national initiative to rethink Jewish education and engagement on campus. Ben studied for the rabbinate at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and was a member of Hillel’s Accelerate executive training cohort and of the inaugural Hartman Institute’s Campus Fellowship. Ben is married to Rachel Weiss-Berger and together they are the parents of four daughters, Tovah, Avital, Eliana and Nili. He can be reached at email@example.com.