Scholarships improve the quality, skills of Israeli government leaders.Ask yourself this question: If you wanted to make a significant impact on Israeli society, what would be the single most important thing you could do?
This was the question that Leslie Wexner asked himself when deciding to set up a philanthropic project for Israel 12 years ago.
Wexner’s answer was that the most important single thing, from which all others must flow, is to develop quality leadership in Israel’s public sector. For Wexner, the idea of developing high quality within a narrowly defined group was not a surprising conclusion. His phenomenal business success was based on recognizing the need for specialist niche clothing shops, including The Limited and Victoria’s Secret, at a time when the economic tide was focusing on large department stores.
Wexner had already adopted a similar approach in two significant projects he established for North American Jewish Community, developing high-caliber lay and professional Jewish leaders. For Israel, Wexner decided, the most urgent need was to inject leadership skills and vision into the civil service. The model he finally chose was to select up to 10 key people from different branches of the public sector each year, and to send them to participate in the Mid-Career Masters Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Twelve years later, close to 120 Wexner fellows have graduated from the program. How is one to measure the success of such a program? After all, the fellows are selected from many applicants, on the basis of the likelihood that they will have an impact in their field. How then is one to gauge whether their subsequent success has anything to do with the program?
Here my personal bias comes in. Having been a participant in the program, it seems to me that it has a significant impact on three levels.
First, and most simply, is the acquisition of new skills and models of thinking. The program, which allows participants to take courses from all Harvard’s schools, as well as MIT and others, enables a rising generation of Israeli leaders to have access to the latest and greatest minds and models. To this day there are problems that confront me that I still think of as case studies in a Harvard class.
Second, and here the Kennedy school may be unique in the world, is the quality of the international exposure it permits. It attracts the highest caliber of public sector leadership from around the world and Israeli participants find themselves sitting next to ex-presidents and future prime ministers from every continent. It also creates a rare opportunity for high quality public relations, as future world leaders are exposed to some of the finest and most dedicated individuals Israel has to offer.
And third, is the Wexner fellows’ community. In a country the size of Israel, a group of 120 people in key positions with a common experience and language, represents a significant network, especially when strategically placed, as the Wexner network is, throughout the government ministries, the military, the health service and so on. Several generations of Wexners continue to meet in their groups on a regular basis to exchange ideas and talk over professional problems. Additionally, all past fellows are invited to academic and social events organized the Wexner Foundation. This group may well be the broadest and highest caliber caucus in the country.
Several Wexner graduates have gone on to become Director-Generals of government ministries. Others have reached the highest echelons of the military, the health service and the educational establishment. But ultimately, for Israel, the value of the program is not the titles of its participants, but in the quality of leadership exercised by these individuals at every level. And for Jews in the United States, the value is a unique model of thoughtful and creative philanthropy, having an impact on Israeli society in a profound way.