Wexner and My 25 Year Jewish Journey
Larry is a Wexner Heritage Milwaukee alumnus. He is a financial advisor and a blogger for the Huffington Post and at www.larrygellman.blogspot.com. Larry now lives in Tucson and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently, I completed my three-year term as Chairman of the Board of CLAL, an organization that continues its legacy as the primary promoter of pluralism and the relevance of Jewish wisdom as important tools for living a happier and more productive, ethical, and meaningful life in an ever-changing world.
At the ceremony recognizing my service (and making sure I knew that my term was over), I once again thought about the enormous and life-changing role the Wexner Heritage Program experience has played and how grateful I am that this opportunity was made available to me.
I have been a Jew my entire life. But, in a very real sense, my Jewish journey began in earnest 25 years ago with the Wexner program in Milwaukee.
That was the first time most of us had the opportunity to study Jewish wisdom, texts, values, traditions, and history – and with the most accomplished teachers in the world. But as a Reform and largely cultural Jew, I was also made aware that Judaism was not just a set of religious practices that were important only to ritually-observant Jews. Jewish wisdom also had the potential to be a living, breathing and value-adding part of becoming a better friend, professional financial adviser, father, brother, son, and member of my community. These were issues and aspirations I was already struggling with on a daily basis but never considered Jewish values and insights to be a relevant resource.
I had always thought that the Talmud and Jewish texts focused on appropriate Shabbat observance and instructions on how to properly kill a chicken. I never dreamed that much of the Talmud is devoted to discussions of business ethics and that Judaism was really designed to be a value-added resource on how to live a better and more meaningful life—in other words the very issues about which I was already obsessing.
It was my Wexner experience that changed everything and put me on the path to becoming a Federation campaign chair, the head of Israel Bonds, and one of the founders and funders of a new liberal Jewish day school in Milwaukee. I moved to Tucson nine years ago and have already chaired the board of the Jewish school here, become involved in AIPAC and J Street, and will chair our Tucson Federation campaign next year.
My Wexner-induced values and passions also led me to study more and more and eventually to become a lecturer myself on the topic of Judaism and Business Ethics. I have taught and led discussions on that topic at a number of synagogues and Federations in the U.S. and have lectured at Pardes in Israel—addressing the subject, not as a rabbi, but as a money manager who is looking for insider information regarding how to be a better and more effective professional and person.
However, the most synergistic involvement that sprang from my Wexner experience was my interest in CLAL. Many of my most inspiring teachers in the Wexner program were CLAL scholars—most of whom have become dear friends and colleagues. Yitz Greenberg, Reuven Kimelman, Joseph Telushkin, David Elcott, Leonid Feldman and others from CLAL taught our Milwaukee group and changed my life in very profound ways and those relationships led me to become part of the CLAL board shortly after my Wexner program ended.
Today, under the leadership of Irwin Kula and Brad Hirschfield, CLAL continues to be on the cutting edge of bringing Jewish wisdom to the public square in usable and accessible ways. CLAL also continues Yitz’ legacy of promoting the ideals and values of pluralism both inside and outside our community.
CLAL’s “Rabbis Without Borders” program gives our future religious leaders an opportunity to study with great teachers and colleagues of all Jewish denominations and other religions as well.
In short, the many blessings and challenges that have framed my life over the last 25 years have all stemmed in one way or another from my Wexner experience. The most recent and most meaningful of those blessings has been the opportunity to help lead CLAL through the opportunities that stem from living in such interesting times.
But I hope, pray, and expect there are more challenges and opportunities to come as the journey continues. And I wanted to make sure that I thanked Les Wexner and all the professionals who have made it all possible. I would have never found this winding road or taken the journey without your help.