Top from left: Matt Reingold, Yoni Pomeranz, Avi Miller, Michael Emerson, Sarit Horwitz, Maital Freidman, Sara Meirowitz. Middle from left: Shira Billet, Evelyn Baz Enright, Justin Rosen Smolen, Ruthie Warshenbrot, Reuben Posner. Bottom from left: Julie Finkelstein, Liz Piper-Goldberg, Miriam Farber Wajnberg, Jared Matas, Jeni Friedman, Tova Katz. Not Pictured: Aviva Richman. 
The Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program’s Winter Institute devoted to cohort-based leadership learning ended yesterday. Class 23 (pictured above) finished their active stage of the fellowship and transitioned into the alumni community. Below are excerpts of the reflections given at yesterday’s closing breakfast by Class 23 member Michael Emerson:

When I was accepted into the Wexner community I was excited. Time carved out every winter and summer to engage in high level arguments and conversations with peers and confidently discuss my stance on a variety of issues. I was not, however, prepared for just how humbling the experience would be or how frequently I would fail. I was not prepared for what it would feel like to be critiqued publicly and wish I could sink into the ground beneath my chair. What I was even less prepared for was the critical evaluation of my own strongly held beliefs and values that has come as a result of the institutes. And, I was certainly not prepared for how much my value system would change when held under the microscope.  

I was not prepared for these and many other decisions because I was operating under an assumption that leadership implied infallibility and being fully formed. I did not anticipate that I was entering a community in which all my basic assumptions of what it means to be **fill in the blank** a committed Jew/good person/responsible adult/engaged community member/leader/right would be challenged.

I learned fairly early on that it’s ok to be wrong, to fail even, to be unfinished. One’s path toward leadership must, by necessity, include an honest reassessment of values – religious, political or otherwise, my upbringing, my friends, and my actions…In a space like this, it’s okay to hurl something and see where it lands, push each other and see what happens, jump and see where you land, or far more importantly, where you fall…

It is a community that encourages flexibility, experimentation, and trying something a second time. Yes there are risks, but the risk is usually ending up bent, not broken, a bruised ego maybe — but stronger character. It is in this community that I have felt the crucial combination of feedback and support that has pushed me to grow in ways that I could not have imagined four short years ago. We have been given the opportunity to enter a “safe” space for a few days in the summer and winter and reimagine ourselves and who we want to be. For a few days, we can entertain ideas that can seem incompatible at times with our “regular” lives outside of the bubble. This is not something that I take for granted. There are very few other places in which this type of playful experimentation would be allowed, let alone encouraged and supported.

Raised in Memphis, TN, Michael Emerson is a doctoral student in the Education and Jewish Studies program at NYU Steinhardt as a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar and a Steinhardt Fellow. Michael teaches Tanakh at SAR High School, an Orthodox day school in Riverdale, NY. He has worked as a consultant for the iCenter and as a research assistant for Eran Tamir of Brandeis University, analyzing the working conditions and induction practices of new teachers in urban public, Catholic, and Jewish day schools. Michael lives in Forest Hills, Queens with his wife Adina Bitton and their daughter Maayan.