Changing the World with Jewish Values: A Conversation with Ellen B. Kagen Waghelstein
“If you live in the ‘stretch zone,’ you will never regret a day of your life,” Ellen B. Kagen Waghelstein advises her annual leadership academy for Afghanistan’s future female leaders. The Director of the Georgetown Leadership Program, a JWRP Board Member, a leader in the Jewish community, and a trainer of leaders throughout the world, Ellen passionately follows her own advice, identifying organizations that align with her values and making an impact with her unique skill set.
This past month, Ellen received an award from the Republic of Afghanistan for her incredible contributions to The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women and in January, she’ll receive an award from the Women’s Philanthropy division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. In our conversation, Ellen shares how Judaism inspires her work with Afghan women, as well as their reactions to learning about the Holocaust.
Tell us about your work with the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women.
The Initiative to Educate Afghan Women provides scholarships to Afghan women to attend four-year colleges across the United States. It also educates and empowers them to become future leaders in Afghanistan. I decided to get involved by developing a leadership academy for them during their annual convening in Washington, DC. Through seminars, hands-on skill-building workshops, small dialogues, pair-learning, coaching, and facilitated conversations, I support the women in developing their individual leadership styles and cultivating their leadership skills — whether they’re leading from the front of the room or the side of the table.
What inspired you to get involved with this organization?
As a Jewish woman with a strong sense of history, I am very aware of oppression. In my own small way, I want to make sure that no one has the opportunity to marginalize or oppress a whole group of people ever again. I approach my work with the Afghan women through a Jewish lens and I share ways to be courageous, take risks, and create partnerships with diverse people. Afghanistan is a country made up of many different tribes and we discuss ways to build bridges and see each other as equals despite cultural hierarchies. As a Jew, I, too, know what it’s like to be part of a tribe and to feel comfortable in my own safe space. But I have also been fortunate to be a tribal person among other tribes. I encourage other women to get out of their comfort zones and to experience that feeling as well.
Can you share a powerful anecdote from your work with Afghan women?
Each year in class, I reveal that I’m Jewish and that many of my values stem from growing up in a Jewish home. I teach my students that in order to pinpoint which values we want to keep, strengthen, and reset, we need to dive into our culture and understand how it defines our behavior.
One year, I also shared a photo of my family members who were murdered in the Holocaust. My students then visited the Holocaust Museum, guided by a Holocaust survivor. When I met them later that night at the annual Afghan feast, they ran up to me, sobbing. They had heard about the Holocaust but hadn’t known about its magnitude. Meeting me and seeing my family’s photo made it feel especially personal for them. They told me that they were inspired by the way we share our story. “We, too, want to be able to tell our story in a way that shares the enormity of what’s happening to our people,” they told me.
Because of experiences like these, I encourage every Jewish person to be an ambassador for the Jewish people. As we share our stories and ourselves, we can build bridges and shape the views of every person we touch.
Why have you decided to focus so much of your energy on philanthropy?
None of us can be everywhere and do everything. So, in order to spread our values around the world, we need to make sure there are resources in place to make that happen. When I give to organizations that are aligned with my values, I can ensure that the things I care about really will happen. Philanthropy allows me to accomplish so much more in life. Thanks to philanthropy, I can make sure that the people both in my view and outside of my view are cared for.
How can JWRP sisters get started as activists?
First, show up. Second, show up again, focus on what you’re interested in, and learn more about the organization that interests you — what they care about and the kind of impact they want to make. Third, build relationships with the people who have come before you. And finally, step up and ask, how can I help? The world needs your heart and activism. So, don’t sit on the sidelines. Get started now.