On Thursday, May 25, Yeshiva University’s Class of 2017 celebrated YU’s 86th commencement along with friends and family in The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, delivered the keynote address and received an honorary degree.
President Richard M. Joel praised Dermer’s vigorous defense of Israel as he conferred the honorary degree upon him. “Your tenure as ambassador has taken its character from everything that came before it in your life. You are unapologetic in your defense of Israel’s right to exist as a nation and a people and mince no words when it comes to advocating for Israel’s interests. We honor you for your role as a determined and dedicated advocate of yiddishkeit [Jewish character] and the Jewish state and for believing that a great moral purpose anchors the national destiny of the state of Israel.”
In his speech to the graduates, Dermer wished them good luck on their personal journeys but also gave them a broader mission to follow. “To keep Judaism alive for many Jews, we must restore pride in Jewish values and Jewish ideas for a generation of Jews that knows little about either. That is why Yeshiva University is so important. And that is why each and every one of you is so important because this university has equipped you, like few others in our generation, to succeed in that mission.”
Following Dermer’s keynote address, 10 undergraduate valedictorians received special recognition for their outstanding academic achievements, among them White Plains native Akiva Marder, the valedictorian for Isaac Breuer College.
These exceptional new alumni will now move on to careers and graduate studies that range from accounting and medicine to Jewish education and marketing. However, as they look back on their undergraduate years, they share a deep sense of appreciation for the personalized, high-quality education they received at YU.
For Marder, the close relationships he developed with faculty members such as Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel, instructor of Bible, had a profound impact on him. “I remember on one occasion in our Book of Joshua class, I raised my hand to share a connection I drew between our chapter and the preceding one,” said Marder. “I saw that, beyond listening attentively, Rabbi Angel wrote down my thought in his notepad so he would be able to reference it later. In moments like those, Rabbi Angel is able to make his students feel like active participants in Torah, engaging with text and Judaism in a way that really matters.”
Marder also enjoyed the opportunity to get involved in many different extracurricular activities on campus, as a writer for the student newspaper, Model United Nations chair and psychology research assistant. But the psychology and business student’s favorite role was his three years as news anchor for Shield News, the student news broadcast. “Being on camera and getting to represent YU in that way has been both incredibly fun and meaningful,” said Marder.
Other Class of 2017 valedictorians included Mickey Levinson, Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program; Yonatan Mehlman, Yeshiva College; Avigail Goldstein, Erica Secemski and Jacob Klar, Sy Syms School of Business; Tova Goldstein, Stern College for Women; Kayla Axelrod, Rebecca Ivry Department of Jewish Studies; Shua Katz, Yeshiva Program/Mazer School of Talmudic Studies; and Maor Shoshana, James Striar School of General Jewish Studies.
Philanthropist and activist Tzili Charney was also awarded an honorary degree in recognition of her generosity to the university. A university benefactor, she, along with her late husband Leon Charney ’60YC, has given generously to Yeshiva, including a recent commitment of $1 million to establish the Leon Charney Legacy Project, which focuses on expanding Israel studies and the arts, and donating the Leon H. Charney Collection to the YU Library Archives. President Joel praised Charney for her “love, loyalty, vigor, sophistication and unyielding Jewish pride.”
Quoting her husband, Charney told graduates to “examine the options you have available to you. Maintain a promise of peace. Make proper choices and bring about changes in your life while, at the same time, continuing to make the world a better place.”
President Joel also bestowed the Presidential Medallion upon Rabbi Manfred Fulda, associate professor of Talmud and an educator at YU since 1959, for his service. “You are the ultimate rebbe, modeling the values of our Yeshiva, and serving as a guide for our talmidim [students], and so we celebrate all that you have accomplished thus far. As you once remarked, you are one of the only people left alive who received a bracha [blessing] from the Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Fulda, you have been nothing but a bracha to our Yeshiva, and therefore it is my greatest pleasure to award you the Presidential Medallion.”
The class of 1967 was also honored as they marked the 50th anniversary of their graduation.
For President Joel, the ceremony was bittersweet, as it marked his final commencement as YU president. “My wonderful students—finally, I get to graduate with you,” he said. “We are gathered 5,000 strong to celebrate you and the Jewish future. Be God’s partner and help perfect the world.” His speech was followed by a touching video tribute to him and the presentation of a ceremonial mace in honor of his service. In making the presentation, Dr. Josh Joseph, senior vice president, noted that President Joel had conferred degrees on 28,655 students and that “the most fitting tribute for you, the most fulfilling benchmark of your success, will be their success. You empowered your students with a mandate to matter, you created an educational experience that fills us with integrity, you ennobled us and enabled us. Thank you.”
In total, more than 1,700 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, were awarded degrees from YU during its commencement season.