#ThxWex: A Letter of Gratitude to Abigail and Les Wexner

Dear Abigail and Les,

Last week, I had the immense privilege of standing should-to-shoulder with 19 close friends under a Chuppa on the shores of Mediterranean Sea during a Siyum ceremony marking the end of my two year Wexner Heritage Program experience.

During the completion ceremony, our teacher and mentor, Rabba Yaffa Epstein bestowed a blessing on us. A blessing that our dedication and devotion to each other, to our community and to the betterment of the Jewish people should be expressed by three very Jewish qualities: joy, service and the notion of rejoicing in one’s lot.

In this instance, I would depart from the usual translation of the words “rejoicing in one’s lot” – שמח בחלקו . Rather, I would translate this phrase as being joyous for being “a part”. For being a part of the wonderful gift that you both, in partnership with Federation CJA, have given to me.

In the Fall of 2016, I was the recipient of an open email from the Wexner Heritage Program and the Montreal Federation CJA inviting recipients to consider “the gift of the Wexner Heritage Program”, an intensive two year program to help “expand the vision of Jewish volunteer leaders, deepen their Jewish knowledge and confidence and inspire them to exercise transformative leadership in the Jewish community.”.

When I received an email confirmation a few months later informing me that I was chosen as one of the 20 participants from Montreal who, together 40 leaders from Chicago and Detroit, would together form the 2017 Wexner Heritage Program cohort – I perhaps did not appreciate the real magnitude of this “gift”.

A few weeks later, during our first group meeting just prior to our departure for our New Member Institute in Aspen, I started to sense the power and purpose of the program. During this meeting, we were invited to share an artifact that was symbolic of our Jewish experience. I brought two artifacts that evening. I brought a Siddur that I received on the occasion of my participation on the 1992 March of the Living. It was the Siddur that I painstakingly learned to Daven from – first in English and eventually in Hebrew. I also brought a Tanach – a copy of the Hebrew Bible that I received on the day of my IDF induction ceremony.

From photographs of loved ones, Shabbat candlesticks, Tzedakah boxes, Judaica, jewelry, a Torah scroll and even Dead Sea salt – these artifacts represented our collective past and our Jewish experiences.

With these experiences and artifacts in our minds and in our hearts, in Aspen, we came together to start contemplating and molding our collective Jewish future as the Montreal ’17 Wexner cohort and as the future leaders of our community.

During our institute in Aspen, we learned about the nature of the Jewish enterprise deriving important leadership lessons from the ultimate source book – our Tanach. We learned about the power of Jewish Chutzpah from Rabbi Ed Feinstein, building up Jewish character from Rabbi Elka Abrahamson and the dangers of antisemitism from Professor Deborah Lipstadt. We nourished our minds and with the words and melodies of Dr. Elli Kranzler, Rabbi Dorothy Richman and Noah Aronson, we also nourished our souls.

In Aspen, you personally challenged us to not just become leaders who are Jewish but to become Jewish leaders – grounded in our Judaism and not only led with but also led by a fundamental code of ethics and values.

During our institute in Utah, Rae Ringel taught us about the privilege of being able to “ask” and the importance of partnership, Dr. Erica Brown taught us about inspired Jewish leadership and how to lead with humility and with Aaron Henne, we expressed – actually we acted out – our own personal Jewish narratives.

In Israel, we saw first-hand the successes and achievements of the Jewish state and her citizens and we also took a deep-dive into her complexities and challenges.

For 140 hours of in-class time in between the three summer institutes and with the inspiration and guidance of world-class teachers, we built and reinforced our Jewish toolboxes. We debated, we ate, we challenged, we ate, we criticized, we ate, we laughed and of course we cried. We took notions and beliefs that we hold true and we flipped them on their head. I was pushed, prodded and stretched and at the end of the day – it was some of the best Jewish learning that I had ever experienced.

My key takeaway is that the Jewish people have many great attributes but our greatest asset is our diversity. Perhaps the Talmud – with its multitude of dissenting voices – is the ultimate example of the respectful discourse that should characterize every Jewish leader and every Jewish decision. Our sages clearly understood the profundity of this message.

Montreal ’17, you should know, had two distinct mantras.

In Aspen, we were constantly invited and encouraged to “Say more..” – an animated call by our teacher Rabba Yaffa Epstein to expand, clarify, elucidate or elaborate on a thought, idea or question.

In our final session in Montreal, our second mantra came into focus. “What are YOU going to do about it?” – a simple but poignant call to action coined by our teacher Professor Rachel Fish’s father in 2004 when Professor Fish – then a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School – conveyed to her father the injustice of her school’s acceptance of a sizeable endowment from the billionaire President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan – an unabashed anti-Semite and supporter of Holocaust denial. Rachel Fish was buoyed by the challenge and through her efforts and advocacy, the endowment was ultimately returned.

These statements – compelling and timeless Jewish statements really – were phrased by our teachers but Montreal ’17 has forever adopted them as our compass. “Say more” being the never ending thirst for Jewish knowledge and “What are YOU going to do about it?” – being our reminder and rejoinder to act against complacency in the face of injustice.

During the course of the program – there were many special moments. Mine occurred in Utah, during a chance conversation over lunch with my Montreal ’17 classmate and friend Marie-Helene.

In the course of our conversation over dinner, I was recounting to Marie-Helene a dilemma that I faced many years earlier as a young lawyer fresh out of law school. At the time, I was unsure whether I was comfortable wearing my Kippah in court. As chance would have it, I had to make a decision fairly quickly as I was summoned to court on an urgent matter during my first week in my job. It was Friday during the winter when the onset of Shabbat came early. I decided to wear my Kippah and as the day progressed, the probability of me having to walk home from the courthouse (so as not to desecrate my Shabbat experience) was looking more and more likely. We were finally assigned a judge and that judge’s first question to me upon seeing my Kippah was unexpected. He asked “what time is sundown” and “what time do you need to finish by to make it home on time”.

When I mentioned the name of the judge – who has since passed on – to Marie-Helene, she began to tear up. Unbeknown to me, that judge was her late father. Marie-Helene explained to me that evening that she had always wondered what her father would have thought about her decision to convert to Judaism and in a dining tent in Snowbird, Utah, she told me that she had found that answer. It was a raw, unscripted moment that could just as easily sum up my entire Wexner Heritage Program leadership experience – the idea that words, deeds and actions today can bring about a lasting and meaningful impact tomorrow.

As I conclude this expression of gratitude, I would be remiss if I did not express my appreciation to my friends in the Chicago ’17 and Detroit ’17 cohorts.

Over the course of the program, we analyzed data. Intermarriage statistics, Israel engagement data and day school attendance rates. It is often said that Canadian Jewry is perhaps one or two generations behind US Jewry in regards to these and other touchpoints. If my brothers and sisters from the Chicago ‘17 and the Detroit ’17 cohorts are an indication of what lies us ahead for us – the Jewish future in Canada is secure, encouraging and exciting. It was an honor and privilege to have learned and drawn inspiration from such a committed, diverse and engaged group of Jewish leaders. My life – and I am certain that the entire Montreal ’17 cohort – is enriched by these new found friendships and common bonds.

As our three cohorts stood proudly under a Chuppah during our Siyum ceremony in Israel last week, I took stock of the experience of the last two years – an experience that started on a mountain top in Aspen and culminated by the sea in Israel.

Much like the people of Israel standing at Mount Sinai – the mountains of Aspen signaled our call to action and the beginning of our responsibilities in helping shape our communities, our countries and our people. It was our Naseh Ve’Nishma moment.

Two years later, during our Siyum ceremony on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea – our responsibilities came into sharper focus. Like the people of Israel in the time of the Exodus from Egypt – with Pharoah’s army closing in behind them and the swirling Red Sea in front of them – one quiet leader named Nachshon Ben Aminadav took the plunge and in doing so led the Jewish people by example. Quietly, boldly, purposefully and confidently.

I could not have imagined a better way to bookend the Wexner Heritage Program experience.

The next time that I am asked to illustrate or articulate the objects or artifacts that symbolize my Jewish experience – I will still point to my cherished Siddur and to my Tanach. Only now, I have a third cherished artifact. It is not a material artifact but it is nevertheless a very meaningful gift. Your gift to me. A gift that I am very eager to start paying forward.

For the gift of the Wexner Heritage Program, I am forever indebted to you both.

With deep respect and admiration,

Lawrence Witt

About the Author
Lawrence Witt is a labor, employment and human rights lawyer with the Canadian firm Miller Thomson LLP. In 2017, Lawrence was co-chair of the Montreal March of the Living Delegation comprising of 250 participants accompanied by 10 Holocaust survivors. In 2019, Lawrence received the Gertrude and Henry Plotnick Young Leadership Award from Federation CJA. Lawrence is also a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Program (2017 Cohort). In the early 1990's, Lawrence studied at Yeshivat Machon Meir in Jerusalem and he subsequently served in the IDF as a lone soldier in the Armored Corps.
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