Celebrating a Passport to Success

International Stern Alumnae Share Extraordinary Journeys to YU at Stern Annual Fund Benefit

On July 1, Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women celebrated its international alumnae at an event featuring dynamic presentations from extraordinary Stern women from around the globe. The evening was also a celebration of the remarkable new book Me’arba Kanfos Ha’aretz: From the Four Corners of the Earth: International Alumnae Remember Stern College for Women, in which these women’s stories and others are carefully preserved and presented side by side for the first time, and its editor, Mrs. Marga Marx, who has been dedicated to international students’ success at Stern for more than 30 years.

Close to 100 attendees mingled on the terrace at the Scholastic Greenhouse among an assortment of international foods to the gentle notes of a string duet at the event, “Passport to Success,” which benefited the Stern Annual Fund.

Dr. Karen Bacon, the Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of the Undergraduate Faculties of Arts and Sciences at YU, emphasized the evening’s underlying theme of global Jewish community. “Not only have Jews always been connected to others Jews throughout the world, but Yeshiva University has become a haven for its international students,” she said, noting that the University gives them a chance to begin or enhance their Jewish and professional futures. In turn, YU has been indelibly shaped by the many backgrounds of its international students: “We are grateful for the cosmopolitan vision they have brought us,” she said.

The powerful stories of Stern alumnae Blima (Svatek) Dalezman ’85S and Farinaz Sedaghat-Sedaghat-Mairzadeh ‘03S and current student Esther Knafo ‘16S were the highlights of the evening, which was co-chaired by Rachel (Mandel) Berger ‘88S, Pamela (Laulicht) Hirt ‘90S and Rena (Rivkin) Kwestel ‘92S.

Dalezman recalled her journey to Stern in 1981, as she left her home in Prague during the height of communism. To put her experience in perspective, she revealed how the country’s government and secret police would attempt to “control what we read, what we heard, what we saw and most importantly – where we went.”

From a young age, Dalezman knew she had to escape communist Prague in order to further her Jewish and professional growth. “With 24 hours to escape the country and $30 in my pocket, I fled to Austria and eventually reached the United States,” she said. “Stern was perfect for me. From the warm and caring administration to the first-rate faculty, I appreciated how much the school strove to form open-minded women who could think for themselves and who would always feel comfortable with their Jewish values and identity. In Prague, I had two identities: at home I was Jewish, but out of the home, no one was to know. Now I am proud to say I no longer need to live this double life.”

Sedaghat-Mairzadeh shared the story of her flight from Iran, having been born in the midst of the Islamic Revolution, when the Jewish community found itself quickly losing the safety and comfort of the Shah’s reign. As the political turmoil and uncertainty of the region increased, the young woman and her family knew that leaving Iran was inevitable for her. In 1998, Sedaghat-Mairzadeh arrived in New York City and enrolled in Stern College. It was the first time she had left her family.

“I went from Iran to Boro Park, and it was a huge adjustment,” she said. “At Stern, I found caring and nurturing people. Thank you for opening your doors to me and making me feel at ease.”

Through tears, she added, “The people of Stern became my second family and the institution became an anchor – a safety net – to enable me to obtain a Western higher education. I eventually enrolled in dental school at New York University, met my wonderful husband, and have two precious daughters; I owe it all to Stern.”

Echoing more recent headlines, Knafo spoke of her experience with anti-Semitism and otherness in both France and Morocco. Raised in Paris, her parents decided to move back to Morocco after a few years due to increasing acts of anti-Semitism in Europe. Although Morocco presented itself as physically safer, where Jews and Arabs exist relatively peacefully together, “we still never celebrated Yom Haatzmaut and never raised an Israeli flag,” said Knafo. “We couldn’t express our Judaism fully.”

As Knafo described the common tradition of young Moroccan Jews moving to Paris or London for college, she said, “It blew my parents’ mind when they found out that far away in America, there is an openly Jewish institution, where I could be formally trained not just in my profession, but in my religious identity. I only applied to one college and it was Stern.”

Revealing the long list of Judaic subjects she has had the opportunity to study while at Stern– Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, halacha [Jewish law], Jewish ethics—Knafo said, “I have grown morally, spiritually and academically here. I didn’t have the chance to go to Israel for a year, so Stern was my own seminary experience. I am so thankful that I am  living the Jewish American dream.”

The stories of both Dalezman and Sedaghat-Mairzadeh are featured in Me’arba Kanfos Ha’aretz, which guests and attendees received copies of on their way out.

“Living in America, people don’t always realize that there are others who come from difficult circumstances, sometimes from across the globe, and that they have a lot to offer to the Jewish community,” said Marx, who herself immigrated to the United States after being born in Europe during the Holocaust. “I was very happy to compile the stories of these women, because as we know too well, stories of Jewish survival are important and must be recorded.”