Robert Kraft Tells Class of 2016 to Dream Big in Commencement Address
On Wednesday, May 25, a glorious spring day greeted the Yeshiva University Class of 2016 as they streamed into The Theater at Madison Square Garden with friends and family to celebrate YU’s 85th Commencement. The graduates entered and filed to their seats, escorted by shouts, whoops, hugs, arm waving, high fives, kisses, applause, and strobe flashes from cameras of every size.
This year’s keynote speaker was Robert Kraft, chairman and CEO of The Kraft Group, and the owner of the New England Patriots, who also received an honorary degree. Rabbi Hershel Billet, rabbi at The Young Israel of Woodmere, Long Island, and Dr. Ruth Bevan, David W. Petegorsky Professor of Political Science, also received awards.
Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, head of the school at Yeshiva of Los Angeles High School, delivered the invocation and was followed by YU Board of Trustees Chairman Moshael Straus.
“Yeshiva University is unique in the world, and our commitment—stronger today than ever before—is to Torah, to rigorous curricula, to intellectual exploration and to service to community, so that every one of our students leaves our campuses prepared to lead a meaningful life,” said Straus. “Today we have the pleasure of honoring three individuals whose life pursuits have been full of meaning: Dr. Ruth Bevan, Rabbi Herschel Billet and Mr. Robert Kraft. It is an honor to honor all of you.”
President Richard M. Joel bestowed the Presidential Medallion on Bevan, with “much gratitude and affection” for her work in creating a superb political science department shaped by her “wisdom, care and unswerving devotion.” Bevan has served as a member of YU’s faculty since 1965 and is the director of YU’s Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs. She has received awards from the Fulbright Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as numerous fellowships and grants.
President Joel then conferred an honorary degree upon Rabbi Hershel Billet, rabbi at The Young Israel of Woodmere, Long Island, and a four-time YU alumnus. President Joel recalled that when Rabbi Billet entered Yeshiva College in 1971, he planned on being a doctor—an ambition that was never realized. He also noted that when he graduated, Rabbi Billet did not pay the $30 it cost for the cap and gown, choosing instead to donate the money to charity and attend the ceremony in a suit and tie. “So today,” President Joel said, “you wear a cap and gown for the first time at commencement, and finally, you’ve become a doctor!”
In conferring an honorary degree upon Kraft, President Joel praised him for practicing a “philanthropy that did not stop with Israel or Jewish causes; it has actually spread far beyond to causes including education, child and women issues, cancer research, Jewish-Christian dialogue, youth sports and many more. You model for each of us what it means to wear our Jewishness with pride.”
After receiving the award, Kraft gave a heartfelt speech about how much joy his father, Harry Kraft, would have felt if he could see his son receiving this degree from Yeshiva University. “Watching his son deliver the commencement address at Yeshiva would be far more rewarding to him than all of our Super Bowl successes combined.”
In speaking to the graduates, he focused on gratitude, courage, and responsibility. The compassionate heart of his father taught Kraft how to conduct a life “committed to the highest ethical standards,” while his mother, Sarah, taught that “there’s no bad that doesn’t have some good attached to it. Keep coming back like the tide when it doesn’t go your way. If you don’t give up, you can make your dreams come true.”
Kraft encouraged the graduates to have a chalom gadol, a big dream, that “wakes you up in the morning ready to attack your day, to persevere and persist until you accomplish it: don’t play conservatively between the 40-yard lines. Don’t just play it safe because making improbable dreams happen is the story of our people.”
He finished with a call to action for the graduates to take responsibility for the state of the world in which they live. “As my father said to me, which I think about every day of my life, ‘At the end of every day, as we lay our head on our pillow, you should ask yourselves a simple question: are the people you touched today richer and better for having known you?’ Go forward from here, my friends, and make people’s lives richer and better because they have known all of you.”
The crowd leapt to its feet in a standing ovation.
Following Kraft’s keynote address, President Joel recognized the undergraduate valedictorians as well as the class of 1966, celebrating the 50th anniversary of their own graduation. Elianne Neuman, Stern College for Women and Rebecca Ivry Department of Jewish Studies valedictorian, presented an earnest speech about how her belief in God, strengthened by being at YU, will help her overcome the fears that life outside of YU will inevitably bring her way.
Then President Joel had his own last word for the undergraduates, a charming story about Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and his students. His students found the rabbi on a train to Switzerland and asked what he was doing. He answered that when he stands before the heavenly court, he knows he will be asked if he studied the law and cared for God’s people, and he knows that he will be able to answer each in the affirmative. “But what will I answer if God asks, ‘Did you see my Alps?’ So, Class of 2016, go see the Alps. Enjoy them! And then take on the world.”
The ceremony was especially meaningful for President Joel, as he conferred degrees upon three of his children: Penina and Avery, with doctorates from Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, and Noam, with a PsyD from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. As he noted in his remarks, he has signed diplomas for his six children during his tenure, a point of pride for the Joel family and testimony to their belief in and dedication to the University.
After a benediction from Rabbi Jonathan Muskat of Young Israel of Oceanside and the singing of Hatikvah, some 5,000 people flowed out of the Theater onto the Eighth Avenue for more picture-taking and celebration.
In all, more than 1,700 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, will be awarded degrees from YU this commencement season.