Irwin Cotler, International Human Rights Lawyer, Exhorts Graduates to Pursue Justice

Irwin Cotler, 2006 YU Commencement speaker, addresses students May 25 at The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

May 26, 2006 — Irwin Cotler, member of the Canadian Parliament and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, urged some 750 Yeshiva University undergraduates to build an equitable and humane society in his commencement address at the university’s 75th Annual Commencement Exercises at The Theater at Madison Square Garden May 25.

See photos from the event here.

Prof. Cotler, who served as counsel to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners during his career as an international human rights lawyer, invoked the well-known call for justice from the Torah, “tzedek tzedek tirdof [justice, justice shall you pursue]” as his central theme.

“To pursue justice, one must have a sense of injustice,” said Prof. Cotler, who teaches law at McGill University. “Each one of us must see himself as part of an indivisible struggle for justice.”

Commending YU students as the largest group representing any US university at the recent Save Darfur rally in Washington, DC, Prof. Cotler railed against global indifference to genocide. “The time has come to sound the alarm, to break the silence in the world in which we live. There are too few people prepared to stand up and stop it.”

President Richard M. Joel conferred honorary degrees on Mr. Cotler, as well as Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania; Ernest W. Michel, executive vice president emeritus of UJA Federation of New York; and David Mitzner, real estate developer and president of Apollo-Rida Poland, SP.

Mr. Mitzner drew on his experience during the Second World War to deliver an inspiring message to the graduates: “Never give up, never lose hope, never forget your people and your faith. These simple rules kept me alive under Nazi occupation and in a Soviet prison camp.”

Mr. Mitzner worked as courier between Russian and German occupied zones during World War II, helping his compatriots to flee the Nazis. After relocating to the United States, he built a successful real estate business, including the company Apollo-RIDA one of the largest American real estate groups in his native Poland. In Orlando, FL the company developed America’s first major hotel complex to be financed and completed after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Mr. Michel told the story of the last time he saw his parents before being sent to a Nazi labor camp, which drew an emotional reaction from the audience. “The last thing my mother said to me was ‘Stay a good Jewish boy,’” he said. Mr. Michel survived the horrors of five different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where his parents died in 1942.

Saying she felt inadequate in the presence of fellow honorary degree recipients who had survived such adversity and acknowledging her own comfortable upbringing, Ms. Rodin told the student body, “The world has given you so much. Use it.”

This year’s Presidential Medallion was awarded to Joseph Ellenberg, who has dedicated 62 years of service to YU as its director of budgets and costs. “The people we select for this honor represent the best of us. Like a proud parent and protector, you watched over Yeshiva University,” President Joel said to Mr. Ellenberg. “Through it all you stood erect as a model of ben Torah [observant Jew]. You are YU at its best.”

Mr. Ellenberg found a home at YU two years after escaping the Holocaust in Austria. He has served the university ever since graduating from Yeshiva College in 1944.

President Joel paid tribute to the Class of 2006, most of whom entered the university the same year he became president. “Your commitment inspires your faculty and rebbeim to be even more devoted,” he said. “We charge you to bring wisdom to life from the depths of learning and the expanses of your imagination. Go forth from this day and embrace a future of promise and purpose.”

President Joel conferred about 2,000 undergraduate and graduate degrees, and re-conferred degrees upon the YC Class of 1956 in celebration of its 50th reunion. He also acknowledged the 25th anniversaries of YC’s and Stern College’s Classes of 1981.

Student speaker Jacqueline Rivka Kukuy, co-valedication of Sy Syms School of Business, told the crowd that she transferred to YU from another college because she wanted to study in a Jewish environment.

“At YU, I learned the importance of chesed [kindess] and tzedakah [charity]. I will apply these lessons to all my future endeavors in business and life.”

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