At first glance, many of the women who completed the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (WGF) seem to be at the top of their game.  They are running organizations, teaching at the highest levels and represented in professional Jewish life in powerful ways.  Anyone might guess that these women are “leaning in” to their careers; who would have thought that they would be so eager to share and glean support from one another?  The experience of our WGF Lean In Circles this past year tells an important story about the needs of our fellowship and our alumni network.

At the WGF Alumni Institute in February 2015, two different open space breakout groups were suggested around the topic of women and leadership.  We packed the room; the combined group attracted a large number of women (and several male allies) who gathered to begin a conversation about the specific challenges facing women in the workplace.  For many of the attendees, the session felt too short and the circle too large to meaningfully tackle any of the issues that had been brought to light.  Several women expressed the desire to continue the conversations that had begun and the Wexner Lean In community was born.  

After we sent the initial email to Wexnet, the WGF alumni listserve, the response was immediate and significant.  In the end, 80 women (25% of all female-identified alumni, along with a handful of current fellows) signed up to participate.  Many others expressed interest in joining another year.  It was immediately clear that Wexner women felt a strong need for small gender-based groups.  Eleven different circles were formed around particular interest areas, including building a personal brand, managing up and work-life balance.  (Evidently, work-life balance is a serious challenge; one circle of mothers with young children never actually got off the ground because no one had the time to set it up!)  Most groups met a few times over the year, either in person or virtually, or a combination.  

An end-of-year survey suggested a lot of successes in our first year.  We were pleased to hear that 85% of our respondents were hoping to continue in their Lean In Circles next year.  More important than the interest areas themselves were simply the connections that women made with one another.  87% found a deeper connection to the WGF Alumni community through their Lean In Circle, 83% were grateful to find support for personal growth and professional growth and others said they found new mentors and friends through their groups.  One member found the courage to leave her current job and pursue a new opportunity; another brought a particular case to her group for consultation and still another had her group approve her new business card.  Participants shared personal comments as well:

“[The Lean In Circle] helped me feel accountable and I was able to make goals that I wouldn’t have articulated to my boss.” 

“Our best, most productive, honest and connecting conversations came from topics that were directly relevant to our current career issues, not from formal discussions of abstract concepts.”

“It has been really special and a wonderful addition for me this year.”

“I always look forward to the calls, and I always feel empowered and motivated in my life and my work after the calls.”

The survey also helped us to identify goals for future circles.  We learned that the smaller groups were most successful and that most groups veered off from the initial interest area they had identified to deal with specific topics and individual professional challenges as they arose.  Respondents also commented that they felt most connected to women who shared their life and career stage, rather than some more theoretical stated interest area.  Finally, some participants said they would love to see a Wexner-based Lean In curriculum, using the materials from as well as specific Jewish sources!  We look forward to seeing what our continued participation in these Lean In Circles will create.  At the moment, we are so grateful for the rich conversations and connections that have begun.  Another amazing Wexner legacy!


Rabbi Abby Sosland, WGF Alum (Class 6) is the Morah Ruchanit (Spiritual Advisor) of Schechter Westchester, where she teaches Bible, Talmud, prayer and philosophy. Her writing has been published widely, including the chapter on “Crime and Punishment” in The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews. She started the first free High Holiday service for downtown New Yorkers at Town and Village Synagogue, featured in New York Magazine and The New York Times. She can be reached at

Rabbi Sari Laufer, WGF Alum (Class 14), is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City.  After receiving her ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles in 2006, she was selected for the PEER program through Synagogue Transformation and Renewal, for the inaugural year of the Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leadership through UJA-Federation of New York and was a member of the second cohort of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship. At Congregation Rodeph Sholom, Sari is a teacher of those young and young-at-heart, bringing her passion for rabbinic texts, social justice and Judaism’s wisdom and relevance in the 21st century into the lives of those with whom she is privileged to learn and to share.  She can be reached at

Ruthie Warshenbrot, WGF Alum (Class 23) is a Program Director at The Wexner Foundation, where she is leading the development and implementation of new initiatives for the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program including the Wexner Field Fellows program (in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation), alumni engagement and advising on Foundation-wide initiatives.  Previously, Ruthie worked as a Jewish Service-Learning Manager at Repair the World, as a Program Leader for Bend the Arc’s Jewish service-learning trips and as Executive Director at Limmud NY.  She is the recipient of the 2009 Jewish Communal Service Association’s Young Professional Award.  Ruthie can be reached at