White House Chief of Staff Keynotes Hanukkah Convocation; $1.4 Billion Capital Campaign Announced
White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew delivered the keynote address at Yeshiva University’s 88th Annual Hanukkah Convocation and Dinner on Sunday, December 16 at The Waldorf=Astoria in New York City. President Richard M. Joel bestowed an honorary doctorate upon Lew, calling him “perhaps one of the highest-ranking Orthodox Jewish advisers to a head of state since the Abarbanel” and an embodiment of the value-infused and driven lifestyle members of the YU community seek to lead.
“We are the world’s Torah-informed University, charged with the sacred undertaking of engaging the world around us with our wisdom and our values and yes, our actions,” said President Joel. “We are a dynamic, caring and reflective community, learning from our past, improving our present and enshrining our future. We are in the business of nurturing and educating young men and women in a safe place as they refine themselves and seek wholeness in their own personal spheres, and yet seek to bring that wholeness to the fractured world around them.”
Lew began his career in Washington as an aide to Congressman Joe Moakley and served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton in addition to multiple roles in the Office of Management and Budget before assuming his position in President Barack Obama’s administration. At the Convocation, President Joel praised Lew’s steadfast commitment to Torah as he pursued challenging public duties.
“You masterfully merge your low-key manner with your skills as a serious negotiator to shape some of the United States’ most important policies,” said President Joel. “You have earned the respect of your colleagues because they know that whatever the issue, you act from principle, not from partisanship or ideology. What better example can we offer the students of Yeshiva University than that of a national leader of unwavering values and impeccable judgment, whose actions are consistently guided by the highest ethical and moral values we teach?”
Lew opened his keynote remarks with words of remembrance for the 26 victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, saying, “We all mourn the children whose lives ended too soon, and the teachers and staff who were killed as they tried to protect them. Our thoughts and prayers are with their loved ones and the entire community.” Lew also discussed the sacred responsibility of all educational institutions to protect children from danger.
He then went on to reflect on the two ethical systems which had influenced his life, citing his parents’ and grandparents’ fervent belief that it was equally important to exercise their right to vote and observe the Jewish holidays, living fully in both worlds.
“As an observant Jew I honor the practices of my faith and the rights, credos and responsibilities it stands for. As a proud citizen I believe in working to make sure that this is a world full of opportunity where you can achieve anything if you’re willing to work for it. And as a public servant, I believe that these values, both religious and secular, inform, inspire and elevate the impact that each of us has on our homes, community and the world,” Lew said. “Taken together they bring wholeness and fulfillment—shleimut—to our lives.
“This principle is long ingrained in YU’s mission statement of Torah U’madda, bringing together religious and secular teachings that challenge with many rewards,” added Lew. “Each of us has the opportunity to bring together these identities to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts, as a Jew and as an American, a rabbi and a professor, a student of Torah and economics—finding that wholeness and achieving shleimut is one of the greatest challenges and blessings of our lives, and it’s what enables us to have the deepest impact in the world.”
President Joel also conferred honorary degrees upon management consulting and investment banking executive Stanley Raskas, a 1965 Yeshiva College graduate and 1969 graduate of YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary; Moises Y. Safra, a philanthropist and accomplished financier; and Diane Wassner, a national vice president and member of the Executive Council of the Yeshiva University Women’s Organization (YUWO) and founding member of its President’s Society for Torah Chessed.
Raskas, of St. Louis, Missouri, has served on Yeshiva College’s Board of Overseers for more than 22 years. He was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel of Scarsdale for two years before returning to St. Louis, where he served as president of the Epstein Hebrew Academy, the Block Yeshiva High School and the Young Israel of St. Louis. In 2001, he became the managing director of The Oxbridge Group in New Rochelle, where he also assumed the presidency of the community’s Young Israel. “A true southern gentleman, your energy, charisma and respect for all those you meet are unmatched,” said President Joel to Raskas. “Yeshiva is both fortunate and proud to be among the illustrious organizations you support and lead.”
Wassner was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust in Poland. She has been actively involved with YUWO for over 40 years. Wassner’s dedication to Jewish education is underscored by her longstanding devotion to the Boyan Yeshiva in New York and the Rizhiner Yeshiva in Israel, while Amit, Hadassah Hospital, Mizrachi, Shaare Zedek Hospital and orphanages in Israel are among the many other causes she supports. “Tonight we recognize a modern-day Jewish triumph—someone who heroically survived the Holocaust and went on to build and support Jewish life and Torah learning against all odds,” said President Joel.
Born into a banking family in Beirut, Lebanon, Safra moved to Brazil in 1955 after facing anti-Jewish riots following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. There, along with his father and brothers, he founded a family enterprise that became the Safra Group, a banking and industrial conglomerate with branches around the world. In 1998, he founded M. Safra & Co in São Paulo and New York, companies that specialize in alternative investments in a wide array of investments around the world. Today, Safra serves as honorary chairman and oversees these investments. As an active philanthropist, he established the Chella and Moise Safra Chair in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s Health at YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
“At Yeshiva, we don’t simply need philanthropic supporters – we need visionary partners, partners who define us,” President Joel said to Safra. “You and Chella understand our commitment to engaging the world—the whole world—with our ideas and with Jewish ideals.”
During the dinner portion, President Joel recognized eight Points of Light—students, faculty and alumni who exemplify the mission of the University—calling each one up to light a symbolic candle on the menorah.
“Tonight, we focus on eight individuals who serve as exemplars of the past, present and future of Yeshiva University,” said President Joel. “These are the stories which illuminate not just our community but the world beyond our boundaries. These are stories that nurture our faith, strengthen our beliefs, and feed us with the urgency of purpose.”
The convocation and dinner, which serves as the University’s main annual fundraising event, raised more than $3.8 million. In addition, the public phase of YU’s capital campaign, “Mandate to Matter,” was announced by President Joel during a special video presentation. Inspired by a historic gift of $100 million from Ronald P. Stanton in November 2006, the campaign has already raised nearly $800 million of its $1 billion goal during its quiet phase, enabling YU to increase financial assistance to deserving students, strengthen its faculty, research and academic programs, enhance the quality of student life, campus infrastructure, and community outreach.
At the dinner, YU Trustee Ira Mitzner ’81YC said that the campaign would expand to include an additional $400 million for undergraduate scholarships.
“For Yeshiva to sustain the progress we have witnessed, even during a period of budget constraints, there is nothing more important at this time than to provide the necessary scholarship support to all deserving students,” said Mitzner. “Our case is clear and compelling. We are a University with a mandate to matter.”