Growing up at Louisville Jewish Community Center (JCC), Sara Klein Wagner knew she wanted to work with Jewish teen girls as a camp director. But her path led her in a different direction, coming back home to Louisville and eventually becoming the president and CEO of the Jewish Community of Louisville (JCL). Now, in her 28th year working for the JCL, she is leading the community through a capital campaign to eventually build a new JCC. We talked to her about her career rise and her personal life. Meet today’s FACE of Louisville, Sara Klein Wagner!
How did you get your job at the JCL?
I just celebrated my 28th anniversary working in the Louisville Jewish community. I went to the University of Wisconsin, then to Brandeis University for a master’s in Jewish Communal Service. We moved back to Louisville for the position I took at the Jewish Federation as Community Relations Director. I have been here ever since, through the Federation life and merger with the JCC nine years ago.
I grew up here in the building, from ballet classes to water ballet to the teen program. I was very active in the J. And I met my husband, Howard Wagner, working at the same overnight summer camp that I went to as a camper, when we were counselors.
What do you like most about your job?
I love that it’s never boring. I love that we serve all generations: 6-month-olds who are here every day at the Early Learning Center and people in their 90s who are here every day with the senior adult program, and they can interact with one another. You’re really with people of all different backgrounds and generations.
My grandmother used to come here for the Senior Adult Program. I remember being a really young camper, about 3 or 4 years old, coming out of swim lessons, and I can picture being lined up with my camp group and jumping out of line to give my grandmother a kiss. Now, my father comes here for the senior adult program, and two of my kids have worked here, so this is like family. But it’s not just me — I see so many families like that. And if your grandparents don’t live here in town, you meet other people’s grandparents. Or grandparents who don’t get to see their grandkids get to interact with the kids here. They see each other in the hallway and give high-fives.
Do you have a mentor?
There are a few people I would consider mentors over the years. One was a camp director of mine when I worked at an overnight camp. I thought I was ready for a role, but she was honest with me that she didn’t think I was ready for it yet. But she told me what I needed to do. I appreciated her as a mentor because she was really honest with me, and it pushed me because I wanted to go conquer it.
When I first started, I was the Community Relations Director for the Federation, but I was also the director of the Young Women’s Campaign. And for the past 28 years, I’ve maintained close relationships with many of the women who I’ve had the opportunity to work with. They were incredible mentors. Just watching their desire and willingness to put themselves out there, knowing they could do anything with their time and resources, but seeing how passionate they are about the Jewish Community in Louisville. I’ve turned to them for advice many times over the years.
How does advocacy for women fit into your life and your job?
I’ve been engaged in working with women for years, but all of that changed for me when I had three daughters. It’s one thing to live it yourself and to say that women should have every opportunity. But I know that with each daughter, I took it that much more seriously, that I needed to make sure I was a good role model so that they knew they could do anything they wanted to do.
What inspires you?
It’s really the people I work with, the people I interact with, and the people I’ll never meet, people not only in Louisville but around the world, whose lives I know we’re changing. I may never see their faces, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about helping people fulfill their opportunities and make their lives better. I grew up in this community, and this is my family. I want everybody to feel excited and proud of it and say, “Yeah, my Jewish community did that. That’s pretty spectacular.” I think that is what inspires me.
How do you balance work with personal time?
Some of my friends and family will tell you I’m not so good at that. They merge often. I love being with my kids and my husband, and now that I have two children in different cities, that means I have three girls who don’t live in the same community anymore. It’s more difficult, but it’s fun to find ways to be together. We have group family chats, and we hold up two phones and Facetime simultaneously. You have to work a little harder to stay connected when they’re at different stages in their lives.
What’s something about you that might surprise people?
I totally love everything about Lucille Ball. I grew up loving “The Lucy Show.” I just think women comedians are an inspiration. I just love the ability to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously. I read biographies about women comedians like Tina Fey. I just finished the Carol Burnett biography.
What books do you read and podcasts do you listen to?
I’ve been in a book club for 20 years. I’m not able to go very often, but I always read what the club is reading, so a lot of fiction. I also like biographies. I’m obsessed with a few podcasts: “The Katie Couric Podcast,” “Happier” by Gretchen Rubin, and “Judaism Unbound.” They have guests on every week talking about Jewish life outside of what people think of the Jewish world, and I like that it pushes the boundaries of Jewish life. One of the rabbis in town introduced it to me, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.
What’s the best compliment you ever received?
My girls, when I moved into this position, just how excited and proud they were. They knew how hard I’d worked to get there, and they acknowledged that people recognized it. Coming from them, that was pretty awesome.
What is your best piece of advice?
Find a good mentor, be a good mentor, be kind, and be a good listener.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Iced green tea, running and my reading glasses.
And thank you to Gretchen Bell for the beautiful photos.
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