We at the Foundation have long known that Wexner constituents thrive on innovation. Whether it’s the leadership aspect, the confidence that comes with a strong Jewish identity, the exposure to other innovators, or all of the above, Wexner alumni are often at the forefront of new ideas to impact the Jewish world.

We are pleased to profile below 3 Wexner alumni, representing each of the Wexner leadership initiatives, who have started an organization or project from scratch.  One is focused on the needs of Jewish summer camps; another on social action with a Jewish lens; and the third on the drive for excellence among Israeli public schools. We hope you enjoy this segment, and better yet, we hope they inspire you to launch or sustain your own innovative ideas.

Rob and Elisa Bildner

WH Alumni, MetroWest, NJ

Foundation for Jewish Camp

Catalyzed by Les Wexner’s and Rabbi Herb Friedman’s–of blessed memory–challenge to our Wexner cohort to create more perfect Jewish institutions, we created the Foundation for Jewish Camping (now the Foundation for Jewish Camp) in 1998. We had always been passionate about the power of Jewish overnight camps to engender an attachment to and love for Judaism in kids, and had raised this observation in numerous Wexner sessions while also noting that Jewish camps were woefully short of resources and leadership. We had a vision that every Jewish child should be entitled to attend a quality Jewish camp and decided to create a new North American institution to make this a reality. We started by investing our own funds, created a public foundation to raise additional money, recruited a board and started advocating for the then 130 or so (now at least 150) Jewish camps across North America.

More than 10 years later, with the help of a committed and talented board–dotted with Wexner colleagues–and top management team, the FJC is recognized as one of the most innovative non-profits, has a budget of about $23 million and is dedicated to greatly increasing the number of children enrolled in Jewish summer camps. Today, the FJC is expertly chaired, on the lay leadership side, by fellow Wexnerite and camping maven, Dr. Skip Vichness, while we remain active as Co-chairs of the Board of Trustees. Among the FJC’s current ventures are: the Campership Incentive Program, which gives a monetary incentive that enabled us to welcome nearly 5,000 first-time campers in 2008; the Executive Leadership Institute, providing Jewish camp professionals with business, management and leadership skills; the Cornerstone Fellowship, which has trained nearly 1,200 college-aged camp counselors over the last seven years; and The Specialty Camps Incubator, helping to create new Jewish specialty camps to compete with those in the secular market. We welcome the participation of fellow Wexnerites!

Rabbi David Rosenn

Wexner Graduate Fellowship

Alumnus AVODAH

In 1997, during my last year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary and with no prior experience running a nonprofit, I worked with colleagues and friends to launch AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. AVODAH engages young Jews ages 21-26 from across the US and Canada in a year of full- time work on poverty issues, combined with Jewish study and communal living. We started the organization out of an office in my living room; our nine Corps members lived and worked in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Today, AVODAH operates in four cities (Chicago, New York, New Orleans and Washington, DC); we’ve got a partnership with American Jewish World Service that engages thousands of young people at the intersection of their passion for social justice and their Jewish lives; and by 2011, we expect to have 100 Corps members in our year-long service program.

It was tremendously exciting to launch a new venture, especially one as idealistic as AVODAH. I made full use of my Wexner Graduate Fellows network during the launch, consulting with friends who were starting their own organizations and recruiting several of my Wexner colleagues to the Board. I even asked one of my Wexfriends to serve as a peer mentor, since as the self-appointed Executive Director, I had no one evaluating my work. As the field of national service grows and a robust field of Jewish service along with it, I am excited about the contributions that the Jewish community is making and about AVODAH’s leadership role in the field. It’s especially gratifying when AVODAH alumni are selected as Wexner Graduate Fellows. There’s no better launching pad.

Ram Shmueli

Wexner Israel Fellowship Alumnus

HaTovim BaChinuch – “The Best Serve in Education”

Having retired recently from the Israeli Air Force after thirty years as a pilot, I decided to devote my time and energy to improving the educational system in Israel by undertaking a number of activities. With colleagues, I founded a group of activists called HaTovim BaChinuch, or “The Best Serve in Education”. This group, in a short period of time, has had the good fortune of impacting the level of education nationally.

The decision to act not as an NGO or as part of the government was a process. I realized the strengths and weaknesses of the existing educational (and other) NGO’s, including the high level of dependency on a limited money supply. One of the ways I was able to learn about this up close was by setting out over the course of several months to study the strengths and weaknesses of the Israeli government system, mainly its bureaucracy that causes stagnation and restricts its ability to act.

The idea, in the end, was to work out a combination of a small action group that would act like an NGO; and would initiate projects inside the existing educational bureaucracy. In doing so, we could exploit the wide range of government resources, while operating in a way more characteristic of private enterprise.

The field chosen by HaTovim BaChinuch was to promote the status of teachers in Israel and to attract the best people to choose teaching as a professional pursuit.

We entered in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and with the blessing of the Minister, and started to run programs and initiatives to promote outstanding teachers as well as suggesting a comprehensive national program to enhance the way the system manages its human resources with respect to teachers. We believe that we’ve already succeeded in making a change by encouraging outstanding teachers, even though there is a long way yet to go.

Studying at HKS with the Wexner Foundation’s Israel Program contributed much to my ability to assess and move forward with both government organizations and NGOs. The exposure to many case studies of people, who make a change in their societies in creative ways, opened my imagination and pushed me to dream and execute the current program of HaTovim BaChinuch.