Ron Werner Reflects on His 6 Transformative Years as President of Alexander Muss High School in Israel

Ron Werner Reflects on His 6 Transformative Years as President of Alexander Muss High School in Israel

Outgoing Alexander Muss High School in Israel President Ron Werner reflects on six transformative years in the top role as he dedicates a Torah to the school in honor of his mother’s memory.

By JD Krebs

Like thousands of young Jews around the world, Ron Werner’s connection to his Jewish heritage and Israel was first sparked by a life-changing semester abroad experience at Alexander Muss High School in Israel (Muss).

Ron Werner speaks at the site of the Nova Music Festival massacre

For the last six years, Werner has served as President of Muss, Jewish National Fund-USA’s premier study abroad in Israel experience that today boasts over 35,000 alumni. In September, he will step down from the role that has seen him lead the institution’s transformation into a multi-campus school that plans to host 5,000 students annually by the end of the decade. However, his start with the organization dates back 42 years, when he attended Muss during his senior year of high school.

“I remember lessons from over 40 years ago that I can recite to you chapter and verse,” he says. “I remember walking around fallen stones in Jericho. I remember climbing Masada at sunrise where we experienced an amazing learning lesson that culminated – by luck, chance, or divine intervention – with an IAF jet tipping its wings to us. We talk about ‘Muss Magic’ today as the secret sauce that inculcates Zionist and Jewish values in our teens. ‘Muss Magic’ is the school’s pedagogy, which first and foremost uses the Land of Israel as a living classroom, teaches our history over the arc of time, and levers the skills of the most amazing, most dedicated professional educators. ‘Muss Magic’ works. It makes such an impact, and it is building our future leaders today.”

His experiences at Muss inspired Werner, who now calls Denver, Colorado home, to remain active in his Jewish community. He’s been a lay leader at Muss for over 30 years. In 2013, Jewish National Fund-USA acquired Muss and Werner was brought into the fold.

Bob Werner shares a photo of his late wife, Florence, at the dedication

“I was so warmly received by Jewish National Fund-USA,” he said. “I fell in love with them because I quickly saw that they are completely for the land and people of Israel, which has always been my lifelong passion.”

In 2018, Werner was named Muss President, a role previously held by his father, Bob Werner. Immediately, Werner’s priority was to take a more businesslike approach to Muss. “I told the team we’re providing a service,” he said. “And yes, we ask that parents pay a commensurate fee for the provision of this service which in reality is a life-changing experience for their children and gives users the best ROI they will ever receive.”

The revamped style worked, as Muss nearly tripled its student body from 2013 to 2023. While that number dipped post-October 7, Werner notes that the school’s emphasis on fiscal responsibility has ensured it has managed even under challenging circumstances.

“We’ve lived through COVID and now through October 7, and we’re surviving. It’s hard, but we’re doing it because we’ve created a fundamentally sound organization. I’m a firm believer that the best not-for-profit operates like a good business first and then asks donors to invest in their vision.”

Not only has Muss survived, but they’ve also expanded and grown, investing $4 million into improvements for their Hod Sharon campus, located just outside of Tel Aviv, and acquiring Muss South, a state-of-the-art, five-acre campus in Be’er Sheva with newly renovated dorms, social spaces, classrooms, and even American-style coffee makers. “It’s such an amazing campus,” Werner exclaims. “I’m so excited every time we visit.”

Werner also brought in new leadership, leading the push to hire Dr. Stephen Kutno as the new Head of Muss. “He was exactly what I envisioned in the role,” Werner notes. “Someone who understands education on a professional level, is a proud Zionist, understands we operate a business and can look forward strategically to help us grow.”

For Kutno, the admiration is mutual. “Ron has dedicated his time and energy to ensure that we continue to serve future generations,” he said. “Working with him has been a privilege. The board and I have been shaped by his unwavering hope and commitment to the future of the Jewish people.”

Ron and Bob Werner oversee the completion of their Torah at the Nova Music site while Ron’s brother, Michael, looks on behind them.

Despite Werner’s focus on business, that commitment to the future has always remained his priority. Under his leadership, student financial aid opportunities became widely available through programs like Dream Israel and other initiatives thanks to fundraising efforts and a deeply held belief that access to Zionist education is a sacred right.

“Our goal is not to turn a profit,” Werner declared. “Our goal is to create more young, enthusiastic Zionists. Some students can’t afford to go, and our obligation to the Jewish world is to help them. We need to heed the call of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and bring as many teenagers to Israel as possible. We also know from our research that the most successful programs bring students for more than 30 days.”

Enthusiastic Zionism was on full display during Werner’s recent trip to Israel for his 60th birthday. There, alongside his father, brother, and many others, he dedicated a Sefer Torah to Muss South in memory of his mother, Florence Werner (z”l), just in time for the festival of Shavuot. Usually, the Torah would have been completed at the top of Masada. However, Werner decided to finish the Torah at Kibbutz Re’im, the site of the infamous Nova Music Festival Massacre on October 7.

“We write Torah scrolls on top of Masada because the Romans once thought that was going to be the end of the Jewish People,” he said. “Well, we’re here, and they’re gone. Hamas wanted to finish us off at Re’im. So, we brought this Torah scroll to Re’im and finished writing it, honoring those that were killed there and making a statement that we choose life, and we are here to stay.”

Upon completion, the Torah was brought to Muss South, where students and faculty alike celebrated its arrival. “We drove around Be’er Sheva in this open-air bus with music blasting singing Am Israel Chai, and I’m there holding and dancing with the Torah. In three different places, we stopped and picked up Muss students,” Werner said. “To see 16- and 17-year-olds excited to hold a Torah and to sing and dance with it – our future is bright. Jewish National Fund-USA’s Muss students were excited about a Torah, what more could I ask?”

Rob Werner parades the new Torah through the streets of Be’er Sheva

That enthusiasm is necessary for the upcoming challenges soon-to-be pro-Israel college students will face. Werner notes that the world has changed over his six years as President, especially on college campuses, where the environment has become increasingly hostile towards Jewish students. According to Werner, this shift has made Muss more critical than ever.

“Without question, Muss is the cure,” he says. “Muss is the answer to ensuring a strong Jewish future. We prepare them to deal with Jew hatred on college campuses. We give them the internal strength, the tools, the resources to organize and stand up for themselves as Jews, to stand up for the Jewish People, and to stand up for Israel.”

Post-presidency, Werner plans to stay active with Muss, remaining on the Board as Chairman. He’s too passionate to truly let go. “I’m always going to be an advocate for [Muss], and I am the firmest believer in the critical importance of Zionist youth education that has to occur in adolescent years,” he says.

While leaving a role he holds so dear is bittersweet, Werner is grateful he was able to make a difference.

“I’m so thankful that Jewish National Fund-USA and the Muss board gave me this opportunity,” he said. “It’s also pretty amazing that I followed in the role of my Abba (father). I hope that in my 11 years as part of Jewish National Fund-USA and now nearly six years at the helm of Muss, I’ve been able to make a contribution besides dollars and give to the future of the Jewish People.”

For his part, Abba is proud of what his son has achieved. “I admit I might be biased,” said Bob Werner. “But Ron’s record and accomplishments speak for themselves. His efforts will be inspirational to the next set of leaders.”

“It’s been really special,” said Ron. “Really, really special.”

To learn more about Jewish National Fund-USA’s Alexander Muss High School in Israel, visit amhsi.org. For more information about Dream Israel, where students can earn up to $7,500 towards an approved study abroad opportunity in Israel, visit jnf.org/dreamisrael.

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