Twenty-Five Years as WGF Chair
Robert Chazan has served for 25 years as the Chair of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Selection Committee, and he is an S. H. and Helen R. Scheuer Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies; Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, History; Director, Wagner-Skirball Dual Degree Program and Co-Director, Doctoral Program in Education and Jewish Studies.
In August 1985, Rabbi Maurice Corson, newly appointed as President of the recently created Wexner Foundation, arranged a meeting of a committee of eight Jewish community thinkers and leaders with Leslie Wexner. The committee members convened at the Plaza Hotel for a lengthy phone conversation with Leslie, who set out an interesting challenge for the assembled group. He indicated that he was thinking through the objectives of his new foundation. Fully aware of the myriad needs of the American Jewish community, which no foundation could hope to address in their entirety, he was convinced that the key to foundation success would be intelligent focus. In trying to identify such a focus, Leslie was of course drawing extensively on the lessons learned in his business success. In thinking through that success, he identified the importance of leadership to his business enterprise and concluded that a Wexner Foundation focus on improving the quality of professional leadership for the American Jewish community would constitute a manageable, meaningful, and effective focus for the activities of the Wexner Foundation. Leslie then asked the committee to provide for him a set of possible activities through which the foundation could impact the quality of professional leadership in the American Jewish community.
On a broad level, Leslie Wexner’s careful thinking at that formative juncture in the history of the foundation has proven remarkably prescient. The twenty-five years of the Graduate Fellowship Program have produced a cadre of professional leaders—in the rabbinate, the cantorate, Jewish education, Jewish communal management, and Jewish studies—who have enriched American Jewish life markedly and have served as a compelling example to other philanthropic leaders on the American Jewish scene for parallel activities of their own. At about the same time, Leslie was also involved in establishing the Wexner Heritage Program, with the objective of improving the quality of lay leadership in the American Jewish community, a program likewise highly successful and influential. Subsequently, the Wexner Foundation programs expanded to include improvement of the quality of professional leadership in Israel through the Wexner Israel Fellowship program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Leslie Wexner’s decision to focus on leadership has been amply validated and rewarded.
Since this is supposed to be a personal reflection, let me close by indicating the impact on me of that initial encounter with Leslie and his thinking and my ongoing involvement with the Graduate Fellowship Program. I have been influenced profoundly in two ways. I have come to utilize my place in academia to create programs aimed at exploiting the rich expertise available on major American campuses to improve the training of future professionals in Jewish education and in management of Jewish organizational life. These new programs have derived directly from my positive experiences with the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. In a less tangible but no less meaningful way, my research into Jewish history has been influenced as well. Since that early encounter with Leslie Wexner and my subsequent activities in the Graduate Fellowship program, my historian’s eye has regularly been trained on the issue of Jewish leadership over the ages and its role in steering Jews through the shoals of a complex and challenging history. I had no way of knowing back in 1985 how important that meeting would be to me.