At this time during a normal year, 5,000 friends and family of Yeshiva University would be filling the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City for the 89th Annual Commencement Exercises celebrating the Class of 2020.
However, 2020 has been anything but a normal year for universities and their graduating classes.
Undaunted by the COVID-19 restrictions against large gatherings, the Yeshiva University Committee on Ceremonial Occasions soldiered on to create a virtual graduation ceremony that invited thousands of people from around the world to share in celebrating the trials and triumphs of the Class of 2020. The Committee managed to curate a literal avalanche of materials submitted by hundreds of people (including video, photos, texts and links) into a trim hour of remembrance, commemoration and cheerfulness.
“It was a true partnership,” said Aliza Berenholz Peled, Senior Director of Events, “of the events team along with Matthew Schwartz, Director of Marketing, and his photo and video team and countless others across the network to make this all come to life.”
The new format gave the eight undergraduate valedictorians a greater voice in articulating the hopes, dreams and trepidations of the 1,700 students receiving diplomas as they emceed sections of the event. Each of the undergraduate and graduate deans had a moment in the spotlight as they announced their graduating classes, and while the students didn’t have the chance to cross an actual stage applauded by everyone in the house, participants did get to see them scroll by in cap and gown, thanks to a colossal effort by the Committee to mail the gowns and mortarboards to every graduate, no matter where he or she lived in the world. One unique interactive feature gave people the ability to send in emoji reactions and text messages in real time, which, while no real substitute for actual applause and cheering, still had a dynamic quality to it as the feed scrolled by displaying dozens and dozens and dozens of submissions.
Another standout in a day of standouts was that this commencement marked the first graduating class of the Makor College Experience, a longstanding collaboration between Yeshiva University and Makor Disability Services that gives young college-aged men with intellectual disability the opportunity to pursue their studies on a college campus.
Because the emphasis, as Peled pointed out, was on applauding “the remarkable achievements of our graduates,” having a keynote speaker was replaced by congratulations and compliments recorded by such notable personalities as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Natan Sharansky (human rights activist), Nancy Spielberg (filmmaker), Eli Beer (founder of United Hatzalah), Judge Ruchie Freier (founder of Ezras Nashim), Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Sivan Rahav-Meir (journalist), Charlie Harary (world-renowned motivational speaker), Isaac Herzog (chair of The Jewish Agency for Israel), Ambassador Danny Ayalon, Mayim Bialik (actress), Tamir Goodman (former pro basketball player) and Bruce Beck (lead sports anchor, WNBC-TV).
YU faculty members also sent in their recorded best wishes for the success and advancement of the Class of 2020.
The ceremony began with a thoughtful and heartfelt benediction by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He believed that Yeshiva University graduates were uniquely well-equipped to prevail over the disruptions caused by the pandemic because the values of their education have given them three things: an internal moral compass to give them proper guidance, a foundation of emotional and spiritual strength that allows them to grow stronger under pressure, and the impulse to rebuild a world greatly in need of repair. He ended by encouraging the graduates to go out into the world as “proud ambassadors” of a great institution.
Rabbi Sacks’ stirring call was followed by soulful renditions of the national anthem and Hatikvah by the acapella singing group, the Maccabeats. Moshael Straus, chairman of the YU Board of Trustees, spoke eloquently about the meaningful impact the graduates will have upon a much-changed world but also noted, in a video tribute to those in the YU community who have passed away, the grief that YU has suffered in losing so many that were so dear to all.
Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, gave an earnest sermon about the difference between what he called consumer values and covenantal values and how that difference should guide the graduates’ lives.
Consumer values are all about how a transaction, based on due diligence, leads to individual benefit: “First you gain the knowledge,” he noted, “then you make the commitment.”
On the other hand, covenantal values emphasize the risk and vulnerability that come from making a commitment without have a starting point of full knowledge, as often happens in deeply committed relationships among people. Those taking a covenantal approach to life, said Dr. Berman, become involved in “the joy of discovery [and] mystery.”
Transaction versus transformation: this is the core difference Dr. Berman drew between the two approaches to life. While the transactional is necessary to success in life, it is never sufficient. Only the transformational can ensure that that success has meaning and purpose through its emphasis on “resilience, empathy, commitment, loyalty, curiosity, discovery.”
He ended by encouraging the Class of 2020 to keep the course set by the covenantal values that Yeshiva University has given to them as they “live through a challenging time brimming with opportunities. May you find joy in your life, love in your heart and purpose in all that you do.”
The ceremony ended with an upbeat video montage of the graduates hugging their loved ones, dancing and singing, and tossing their mortarboards high into the air.
A recording of the ceremony, along with a photo gallery and a collection of memories, can be found here.