NBC Journalist, Beloved Coach, and Three Community Leaders Honored at YU’s Commencement

May 17, 2007 — Journalist Tim Russert, moderator of the influential Sunday-morning talk show “Meet the Press,” emphasized the generational transmission of values in building American society when he addressed the graduates at Yeshiva University’s 76th Annual Commencement Exercises at Radio City Music Hall on May 17. Mr. Russert received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from YU President Richard M. Joel.

Mr. Russert, Washington bureau chief for NBC News, commended the students on their deliberate choice of a school with a strong foundation in ethics. “You’ve been given an education that says it’s not enough to have a skill, not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts,” the award-winning journalist said. “Values really do matter.”

The students’ spiritual orientation was an asset that would guide them through the rest of their lives. “You have something others would give most anything for! You believe in something—in your God, in your country, in your family, in your school, in yourself and your values,” he said.

“Remember the message our parents and grandparents and teachers tried so hard to instill in us—a belief if you worked hard and played fair, things really would turn out all right. And you know—after working for Senators and Governors, meetings Popes and interviewing Presidents—I know they are right.”

Mr. Russert also spoke movingly about the hard work and sacrifices of his father, the subject of his book Big Russ and Me: Father and Son—Lessons of Life. “He never graduated high school but he taught me more by the quiet eloquence of his hard work, by his basic decency, by his intense loyalty—he taught me the true lessons of life.”

For photos of the event, click here.

To read excerpts of Tim Russert’s speech, click here.

President Joel also conferred honorary degrees on philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, chairman of the boards of the Jewish Life Network and birthright israel; Jacob Birnbaum, founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry; and philanthropist Stanley Silverstein, founder and chairman of Nina Footwear.

This year’s Presidential Medallion was awarded to YU coach Stanley Watson, who received a standing ovation from the student body as soon as his name was mentioned by President Joel. Mr. Watson is Yeshiva College’s assistant athletic director and director of intramural athletics, a position he has held since 1986. His uncompromising dedication to the students as a teacher, coach, and counselor has earned him campus-wide respect and affection.

More than 2,000 students—including undergraduates from Yeshiva College, Stern College for Women, and Sy Syms School of Business and postgraduates in law, medicine, social work, Jewish education, Jewish studies, and psychology—are being awarded degrees this commencement season, which ends with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law’s commencement on June 8.

This year’s student speakers were Stern College for Women valedictorian Shari Shanin and Yeshiva College valedictorian Avraham Cooper, who both spoke about how YU’s dual emphasis on values and academic excellence had prepared them for the challenges ahead.

“Yeshiva has given us something invaluable—solid roots in both Judaism and the non-Jewish world,” Mr. Cooper said. “We can suffuse our lives with what we learned here, and turn abstract ideas into tangible ways of living. And if we do that, it will be as if we had never left.”

Honorary Degree Recipients:

Stanley Silverstein is the chairman of Nina Footwear, a manufacturer of shoes, handbags, and accessories, and a director of the Children’s Place chain of retail stores. Born in Vilna, Lithuania, his family immigrated to Cuba where Mr. Silverstein was educated and where his father established a shoe company. After coming to the United States and serving in the United States Army, Mr. Silverstein founded Nina Footwear, now one of the few privately owned companies in the shoe business. One of the founders of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business, Mr. Silverstein, along with his wife, Raine, are active in Jewish education and philanthropy.

Michael Steinhardt is known for his philanthropy and also for his passion for art and antiquities. Once a prominent hedge-fund manager, he retired from asset management and in 1994 founded the Jewish Life Network “to strengthen and transform American Jewish life so that it may flourish in a fully integrated, free society,” and birthright israel, a program of the Jewish Life Network, was started by Mr. Steinhardt and others in 1999 to enhance Jewish identity and create a central place for Israel among young Jews in the Diaspora. The program affords every Jew between the ages of 18-26 the opportunity to spend time living and learning in Israel by giving him or her a free round-trip ticket and 10 days of intensive Jewish educational experiences in Israel. Mr. Steinhardt is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Jacob Birnbaum initiated the grassroots struggle for Soviet Jewry in New York City in 1964 and laid the groundwork for a national movement that energized an entire generation of Jewish activists. He is the founder and director of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) and other Soviet Jewry organizations. Mr. Birnbaum derives from a distinguished European Jewish family of scholars, artists and poets. These include his grandfather, Nathan, a Jewish activist and a seminal figure in early Zionism, who is credited with coining the term Zionism, and was elected to the post of Secretary General of the first Zionist Congress in 1897. His father, Solomon, was a pioneer in two areas of Jewish scholarship. Mr. Birnbaum’s family fled the Nazis and settled in England. After World War II, he worked with the victims of Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism and later the troubled Jewries of North Africa. He also served as the director of the Jewish Community Council of Manchester, England. After he settled in New York City, he created a teacher and student core of Soviet Jewry activists at Yeshiva University, and went on to build a significant New York institutional Soviet Jewry infrastructure in the 1960s. This established the primacy of “Let My People Go” and then “Let My People Know (their heritage)”. Today he continues his efforts to strengthen the Jewish identity of Jews from the former Soviet Union. A United States House of Representatives resolution (HRes 137) “honoring the life and six decades of public service of Jacob Birnbaum” is in the final stages of the legislative process.

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