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Commencement Remarks, Israel, 2017

Commencement Remarks, Israel, 2017

Israel 2017 Cohort

First Spertus Institute Israeli Graduation

Commencement remarks by Spertus President and CEO Dr. Hal M. Lewis to graduates and their guests on September 4, 2017.


Erev tov. Tonight we celebrate the graduation of the first-ever Israeli cohort of the Masters in Jewish Professional Studies program at Spertus Institute. And we are pleased that two of our Canadian students, now living in Israel, are also here with us to receive their degrees.

Traditional Jewish teachings speak of the concept of meah brachot – the 100 blessings Jews endeavor to recite on a daily basis. Whether one takes that literally or figuratively, the broader point is that we Jews place a premium on gratitude and appreciation. Our preference is for what is often called an “external locus of control,” in which we see our success as the sum total of many factors, not simply our own individual efforts. And so tonight we begin with words of hodayah, of thanksgiving.

First and foremost, we thank you, our students, who made the difficult decision to go back to school long past the age when many have left the academy. You chose to challenge yourself, in a language that is not your native tongue, and you did it amazingly well. You read difficult articles, grappled with demanding concepts, and wrote excellent papers and projects. Oh yes, and you did all this while managing careers, families, and myriad other responsibilities of adulthood. Tonight, you and those who love you should feel an enormous sense of satisfaction and pride.

If you are like most adult learners you will not be the only one receiving your certificate or diploma this night. At least metaphorically, you will be accompanied by family members, friends, loved ones, and in some cases coworkers and supervisors, as well, all of whom enabled and nurtured your studies from the very beginning.  

This evening we also acknowledge the people who made this program happen. To my Spertus colleagues, Dr. Dean Bell, Tal Rosen, and the original driving force behind this entire vision, Dr. Barry Chazan, each of you has our deep appreciation. Your energies, foresight, patience, and tenacity helped to bring this unprecedented program to fruition. On behalf of all of us, thank you.

We are indebted as well to our partners, Yotam Tron of The Institute for Democratic Education, Michal Tamim, of Shorashim, and our friends at The iCenter for Israel Education. And where would we be without Yoni Kott, master of every detail imaginable? Thank you all.

At the core of every academic program are our faculty members and mentors – whether in Canada, Israel, or Chicago; women and men who worked tirelessly to actualize the dream of this program, guiding our students as they sought to grow their skills and enhance their impact. We extend appreciation to Richard Juran, our mentoring coordinator in Israel, and express our heartfelt appreciation to all our faculty and mentors, whose names are listed in the printed program. Please join me in expressing our gratitude to each and every one. Todah rabbah l’kulam. 

Underlying the birth of this very special Israeli cohort of the MAJPS program is a deep commitment to something that is rarely spoken about and often hard to find these days, namely a love for both am Yisrael and medinat Yisrael. We began this experiment several years ago having been convinced that there are in this country educators, tour leaders, entrepreneurs, and shlichim whose professional interests extended far beyond the geopolitical state of Israel, to include the Jewish people all over the world. We believed then and believe now that those of us on both sides of the ocean who toil in the vineyards of Jewish life share common challenges and a collective fate. We embrace similar passions, mutual dreams, and shared aspirations. This is true even as we operate within different realities and diverse political worldviews. Despite our differences, we believed that what we had in common, what bound us together was not our Israeli-ness or our American-ness, but our Jewish-ness, and a shared embrace of what the Talmud describes as areivut, mutual inter-dependence. Kol yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh (Shavuot 39a). We knew that if this program was to succeed it would only be because, as the former Spertus faculty member, and Zionist thinker, Shimon Rawidowicz, once wrote, Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews are “shnayim shehem echad – two that are one.”

At the time the Spertus leadership conceived of an Israeli cohort we never could have predicted just how naïve we were, or how important these efforts would turn out to be. When we started, even the most cynical among us could not have predicted the depths to which political leadership on both sides would sink. And even hard-core observers would not have imagined just how tortured Israel-Diaspora relationships would become. Who would have known that in 2017, 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, and 50 years since the Six Day War, the relationships between American and Israeli Jews would be as complex, as challenging, and arguably as dysfunctional as they are today?

For many Israelis, medinat Yisrael not am Yisrael remains their sole frame of reference. And for many North American Jews the level of ignorance about life in Israel has never been higher. For the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox, it is hard to feel connected to an official Israel that delegitimizes the Judaism they cherish and hold dear, and it is disheartening to realize that, despite the niceties, the majority of Israelis, including secular Israelis, simply do not care that much about the state of Jewish life chutz la’aretz. While for too long Israelis have conflated Judaism with haredi-ism, American Jews in search of spiritual sustenance are turning further and further away from the Land of Israel. The prophet, Yeshayahu’s (2:3) charming notion that ki mitziyon teitzeh Torah is becoming more and more a fantasy of a bygone past.

The irony, of course, is that all of this is happening at precisely the moment that rising rates of global anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activity, including I am sad to say in North America, are becoming increasingly commonplace on the left and the right. Those of us who love both am Yisrael and medinat Yisraael cannot wish this situation away. Clearly, we are living through a period of deep challenge that will not be resolved with a single magic solution.

In preparing for this night I had the chance to read through some of your final projects – works that explore everything from the future of Taglit to the role of the shaliach, from educational policy and innovation to the status of Israel-Diaspora relations, from Jews in the FSU and Europe, to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Your passions, your projects and the wisdom they contain stand in sharp contrast to the problems we face as a global Jewish people today. They are, as the late “rebbe” of Montreal, Leonard Cohen, might have said, the cracks that let the light get in. Not only are they well researched and organized, they underscore that to be a true ohev Yisrael one must love both the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, not one or the other; both. 

In the gemara, masechet Sanhedrin (99a), we read the following: Rabi Meir omer: Ha’lomed Torah v’eno melamdah, zeh hu d’var adonai bazah. (Numbers 15:31). One who learns Torah, but does not teach it, is considered as one who despises the name of God. I’ve always found this teaching very powerful because it compels those of us who learn to do something more than simply hang our diplomas on the wall. While Judaism treasures the idea of torah lishma, Rabi Meir is reminding us of something equally as important. If all we do with our educations is ponder the learning, then we have failed to live up to the opportunities we have been given. The student who does not teach has abandoned her destiny.

For you, tonight’s graduates, the task is clear. Over the course of your academic pursuits you have challenged yourself; now the task is to challenge others. You have learned about the richness and diversity of Jewish life within and beyond medinat yisrael, now the task is to teach others. You have raised questions and struggled with answers about the Jewish future, now the task is to lead others in doing the same.    

Ha’lomed torah – you have been given a gift, the opportunity to study with outstanding individuals, with faculty from all over the world who think deeply and care passionately about am yisrael as well as medinat yisrael. You have read the words and contemplated the deeds of women and men who understand the Jewish experience in all of its global complexity. Ve’eno melamdah – Failing to share these insights and perspectives … unwillingness to inspire those whose time has come and reticence to step up personally, to challenge the status quo and craft a new chapter in the history of the Jewish people, Zeh hu d’var adonai bazah – Resting upon your degree alone, not engaging others, not enabling them to glimpse some of what you have learned, this, according to our sages, is tantamount to despising the godliness that lies within each of us.

It is not an exaggeration to say that today’s Jewish world is in desperate need of a different kind of leadership. A leadership that brings together the best and the brightest on both sides of the world – shanyim she’hem echad – to confront today’s new realities in Israel-Diaspora relations, in antisemitism, in Jewish education, and much more. We are so proud to call you Spertus graduates. And we look to you to become part of that new generation of Jewish leaders. Mazal tov, ve’kol hakavod le’kulchem. Todah rabbah


Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership and From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership. You can follow his blog at Growing Leaders. He can be reached at president@spertus.edu.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Pictured at Left

Back row left to right: Omer Tulchinsky, Sveta Blekher, Yoni Kott of Institutional Partner Shorashim, Lana Zilberman Soloway, Yulie Khromchenco, Yotam Tron of Institutional Partner The Institute for Democratic Education, Shany Katzev, Rotem Yehoshua, and Doron Sherf.

Front row left to right: Nadav Savaia, Lior Chacham, Director of Spertus Institute’s Center for Jewish Leadership Tal Rosen, Spertus Institute President and CEO Dr. Hal M. Lewis, and Spertus Institute Provost and VP Dr. Dean P. Bell.

Congratulations to our Graduates

Degree of Master of Arts
in Jewish Professional Studies
Stella Beili
Svetlana Blekher
Lior Chacham
Ela Hatzav
Yulie Khromchenco
Nadav Savaia
Doron Sherf
Omer Tulchinsky
Rebecca Woods Baum
Rotem Yehoshua
Lana Zilberman Soloway 

Certifcate in Jewish Professional Studies
Shany Katzev
Nimrod Ran
Keren Siksik

About Spertus Institute 

Founded in 1924 as Chicago’s College of Jewish Studies, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership today offers dynamic learning opportunities, rooted in Jewish wisdom and culture and open to all. These opportunities are designed to enable personal growth, train future leaders, and engage individuals in exploration of Jewish life.

MA in Jewish Professional Studies

The Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies (MAJPS) program brings Jewish professionals together to study crucial issues in contemporary Jewish life that advance their career opportunities and enhance the contributions they bring to Jewish organizations and institutions. Students graduate having grown personally and professionally, cultivated crucial leadership skills, built strong communal links, and gained insight into how to best meet Jewish community needs.

MAJPS Faculty

Scott Aaron, PhD
Loyola University Chicago

Dean P. Bell, PhD
University of California, Berkeley

Barry Chazan, EdD
Columbia University

Ron Dvir, PhD
Cranfield University

Hal M. Lewis, DJS
Spertus Institute

Shany Marchevski, MA
The College of Management—Academic Studies, Israel

Zohar Raviv, PhD
University of Michigan

Jacov Rotkovitch, PhD
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Yael Schwartzberg, MA
Tel Aviv University

Yotam Tron, MA
Tel Aviv University

Gil Troy, PhD
Harvard University

MAJPS Mentors

Dr. Barry Chazan
Scott Copeland
Dr. Jen Glaser
Dr. Naama Goldberg
Dr. Arie Haskin
Richard Juran
Nir Lahav
Nir Michaeli
Tehila Nachalon
Shalom Orzach
Shalom Netta Peretz
Samah Salaimeh
Dr. Debbie Weissman
Dr. Hagit Hacohen Wolf
Avishay Wohl