For the second year in a row, an Orthodox Jewish woman has been named a recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship award. Ela Naegele, a history and philosophy major at Yale University, was one of two German citizens to be given the rare academic honor, which is presented annually to 83 students from around the world.
"The final selection took place on a Friday and consisted of a half hour interview with a panel of eight judges, as well as a formal lunch with the judges, with the president of the selection committee contacting me beforehand to discuss what exactly I would be able to eat,” Naegele disclosed to Sandy Eller of VIN News. “My happiest moment was right after my interview. I felt as though I had just completed a musical performance in which my music had reached its audience and had filled the room with a certain aura. The actual outcome, at that moment, seemed almost secondary.”
Displaying her genuine concern for other people’s feelings, Naegele admitted to experiencing some trepidation during the actual announcement. “When all finalists had completed their interviews and the committee had deliberated for a while, they called all of us into the room and announced the results,” she said. “I felt grateful and relieved, but the disappointment of the other finalists who were standing right next to me hung like a shadow over that joy.”
Naegele noted that she had been notified of the honor on Friday afternoon. “It was half an hour before Shabbat when I received the wonderful news,” explained Ms. Naegele. “I left the villa in which the interviews had been conducted and had just enough time to secure all my belongings in order to pick them up after Shabbat. I walked in my heels for almost two hours from West to East Berlin in order to spend Shabbat with my friends in the Lauder community.”
In addition to serving as co-president of the Young Israel House at Yale, where she coordinated the university’s Jewish programming, Torah classes and social events, Naegele spent a year as a full-time religious studies student at the Lauder Midrasha in Berlin.
“As an Orthodox Jew, I am deeply grateful to be named a Rhodes Scholar and am aware that I am receiving this award not only as an individual and not only as a member of my family, but additionally, as a member of the Jewish people,” she emphasized. “I hope that I will be able to use the opportunity provided by the scholarship to further increase kavod shomayim (honor of heaven) in the world.”
Naegele, who spoke German and Hebrew at home as a young child, studied English for five years before entering Yale, and she is quick to attribute much of her academic success to her parents. “Baruch Hashem, I have amazing parents and it is to them that I owe everything,” she enthused. “There are three things for which I am particularly grateful towards my parents - that my siblings and I grew up without any television, that my parents read to us every night before going to bed and that they encouraged us to learn to play musical instruments. Playing an instrument has shaped my character like nothing else – it is the best imaginable Mussar teacher. It teaches you to win and to lose, to find a balance between body and mind, between individuality and teamwork, between creativity and discipline, and between charisma and perseverance.”
As a Rhodes Scholar, Naegele will attend England’s famed Oxford University next year, where she expects to study modern British and European history, with an emphasis on international law during the Weimar Republic. The young scholar aspires to become a professor, and use her legal knowledge to work both as a legal theorist and a practitioner. In addition to covering all university fees for all Rhodes Scholars, the Rhodes Trust gives them a personal stipend and airfare to and from Oxford.
The Rhodes Scholarship was created in 1903 through a bequest of Cecil Rhodes, who wanted it to play a role in enabling exceptional students to become future world leaders. Rhodes Scholars are chosen for their superior intellect, character, leadership and commitment to service.