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Ambassador Yehuda Avner Tells Graduates: “You Are the Vanguard of Our People”

“Can’t you feel the excitement and energy in here?” asked Miriam Goldstein, a newly minted graduate of Stern College for Women. “These have been the best four years of my life. I’m so glad to be here and part of this.”

“Here” was the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, NJ, where Yeshiva University hosted its 81st annual Commencement ceremony on May 24. More than 750 undergraduate students received their degrees and heard a memorable keynote address from former Israeli diplomat Ambassador Yehuda Avner.

Before going into the main auditorium to take their seats, many of the students and their families were hugging and snapping pictures in the crowded box office area; with an announced crowd of more than 4,500 people, all of whom seemed to be talking and smiling at the same time, the buzz was absolutely electric.

“It’s exciting,” said Louis Karp of Teaneck, N.J, who with his wife, Dorothy, was on hand to celebrate the graduation of their son, Mitchell, from Yeshiva College. “It’s amazing because when I graduated from Yeshiva College in 1978, and then from Cardozo in 1981, there was a nice ceremony, but it was nothing like this. This just feels so atmospheric. I think it really reflects the quality and value of the education that my son received. We’re truly grateful to be part of this community.”

This feeling of gratitude was echoed by Yeshiva College graduate Binyamin Smith, whose extra blue-and-white tassel was a token of the tribute that he felt he owed to future generations of YU students.

“Seniors who contributed toward scholarships all received the tassel. So many of us received scholarship help so it makes sense that we would want to start the process of giving back now that our time here is done.” In all, graduating seniors gave more than $3,000 to support future academic endeavors.

For many, graduating from YU seemed to be a family tradition. “I am the sixth child in my family to graduate from Yeshiva University and the third valedictorian,” said Sultana Shoshani of New York’s Lower East Side, who was awarded the Dean Harold Nierenberg Memorial Valedictorian Award from Sy Syms School of Business.

After the procession into the main hall, the formal festivities began when President Richard M. Joel awarded Ethel Orlian, associate dean of Stern College for Women, with the Presidential Medallion, which is the single highest honor that the President can bestow on any member of the YU community.

President Joel reminded the audience that Dean Orlian has been part of YU as a student, teacher and administrator. A graduate of YU High School and Stern College, she began her YU career as a researcher, but left to live in Israel before returning to Stern in 1979 as the assistant to Karen Bacon, the Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of Stern College for Women.

“Between her and her wonderful family, there is more than 150 years of dedicated service to this University, and mind you, she’s not done yet,” said President Joel.

Ceaseless pride and devoted commitment to Yeshiva University—and to Jews and their causes, wherever they may be—was the main theme of this year’s Commencement speaker, Ambassador Avner, who also received an honorary doctorate. Ambassador Avner is the author of two books, served as speechwriter and secretary to Israeli Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, and as an adviser to Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres.

In the course of his address (read transcript here), Ambassador Avner made a clear cut case for pride in and self-determination of Jews and of Israel. He opened with a rousing description of his experience of being a 17 year old on the front lines during the birth of Israel as a nation. He said that while it was amazing and humbling to be a front row witness to history, it is the moral of that history that must never be forgotten.

“Before the creation of the State of Israel, we Jews were always the object of history,” said Ambassador Avner. “Now we had the chance to be the subject of history, and to write our own.”

At times stabbing his finger emphatically in the air, Ambassador Avner made it clear that he felt all graduates of Yeshiva University should know that they should make history, in part because they were graduating from what he believes is the unrivaled citadel of Jewish scholarship and accomplishment.

“You are the vanguard of our people. The Jewish people need you now as never before.”

Yair Saperstein, the valedictorian of Yeshiva College, reaffirmed these thoughts by emphasizing that although members of the Yeshiva community are alone as individuals in the universe, they are united in significance as members of such a vibrant and strong Jewish community.

President Joel expanded on this theme by telling the graduates that it’s not just their actions as individuals, but their commitment to each other, and their commitment to their identity as YU graduates and Jews, that will help define their lives.

President Joel also conferred honorary doctorates upon Dr. Alan Willner, a 1982 graduate of Yeshiva College and a highly decorated physicist with more than 950 published papers and 24 patents who currently serves as a chaired professor of engineering at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California; and Eleazer Hirmes, who attended YU High School, graduated from Yeshiva College in 1944 and went on to spend 60 years practicing as a CPA, becoming a noted philanthropist in the Five Towns of New York.

“Each of our honorees embodies a different piece of the principles of Yeshiva University, their commitment to the Jewish people, the State of Israel, their hometowns and to the University itself,” said President Joel. “We hope they inspire our graduates to leave our school for success now, but know they always have a home at YU.”

The reunion classes of 1962, 1972 and 1987 were recognized at the graduation ceremony for their 50th, 40th and 25th reunions, while in all, more than 1,400 undergraduate students from Yeshiva College, Stern College for Women and Sy Syms School of Business, as well as graduate students in the fields of law, medicine, social work, education, Jewish studies and psychology, are being awarded degrees from YU during its Commencement season.