Ellen Kagen Waghelstein, an alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program from Washington, DC, is the founding president of Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, former chair of UJC National Young Leadership Cabinet and of Panim, and on the faculty of Georgetown University. She can be reached at ebwags@aol.com.

I recently found myself flying out to Portland, Oregon where I was to be part of a meeting hosted by a Native American organization focusing on leadership in Tribal communities. They had adapted a curriculum I had recently completed as part of my professional work on the faculty of Georgetown University. My participation at their gathering was to be one of “observer and curriculum developer,” seeking knowledge as to how my work might be improved in order to be relevant to their way of life.

As is the traditional nature of the Native American culture, our meeting began in a circle...with drums...and flags, feathers and burning sage.

And then the introductions began...Expecting to hear names and titles, agencies and organizations...instead...I heard the following...

My name is Johnny Eagle...my people are from the Great Plains...my mother is a Cherokee and my father a proud Mohawk. I am honored to be here with all my relatives.

My name is Sharon Fierce Bear. I am from the Chickasaw in the far northern reaches of Minnesota where the bark is white and the trees are always talking. Half my people live in a country called Canada...We are divided by an imaginary border...I am thankful I was able to obtain Canadian Citizenship so I can stay connected to all my relatives.

And so it went...each one with their own story ...each one connecting themselves to past, present and future. And there I was....Ellen, Caucasian, Director, working at Georgetown University.

With my heart pounding....I was next. And so it went... My name is...

Ha Shem sheli Ester Tova bat Pesach Dovid v’ Devorah Shendle. I come from a people who, 3,000 years ago, knew the bitterness of slavery and wandered in the dessert for 40 years until we reached the base of a mountain where, with thunder and flames, we received a code for a way of life that fills our days with meaning and purpose. For 2000 years we lived in exile. We call our homeland Israel and our people are finally able to come home.

There was complete and utter silence.

Not knowing where the words had come from and feeling an unexpected and embracing sense of calm, I closed my eyes and saw with clarity the scan of 3,000 years of Jewish history flash before me. I saw in a moment...all those who had come before me and perhaps a brief flash of those yet to come.

Because of my Wexner experience I now “know” my story...our story...our history... A 3,000 year old story that spans the centuries and is filled with nuance and wisdom. And now I know where I fit... Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor...it is not our job to complete the task V’lo ata ben chorim vhitbatail mimena ...but neither are we free to desist from it... We are picking up where our ancestors left off... as has been done for generations.

None of the great Jewish leaders could have impacted the Jewish world without those who came before. We are all part of one long continuous story I am so proud to be a part of, a story I am now prepared to share.

Each one of us is now prepared. 

Each one of us has within us now the power to share who we are, and in so, doing make connections with others that before now may not have been possible. Whether cross culturally or to the disconnected of our own people. We are now ready.

Ha Shem sheli Ether Tova...I come from a people who brought the vision of humanity and personal actions fueled by values and ethics to the world. Having now been given the Wexner gift of knowing our story...May we always be proud to share it!

I learned from my experience that being a leader commands us to be teachers....with every interaction and with each utterance we can serve as Ambassadors of the Jewish People and change an entire world. Whether to those who share our history and to those who do not. Because of Wexner, Zeh B’yadayim shelanu...it is truly in our hands.