Assistant Dean Discusses Commencement Addresses in Arabic and with Torah Commentary

Dr. Samuel Schwartz, the Assistant Dean of Students of Ono Academic College’s School of Society and the Arts recently discussed the importance of making others feel at home, in the context of two Commencement Addresses he recently gave, one to a class with a large Arabic-Speaking population and another to a class with a large ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. His thoughts and videos of the addresses are below.

*The Blessing of Making People Feel at Home – دراسة اللغة العربية and דרישת דברי תורה*

I have been blessed (without wanting to attract the evil eye), with many abilities and a wide variety of diverse, enriching experiences. We all are. I feel like it is our responsibility to use these gifts and encounters, whenever possible, to connect to others and make them feel comfortable and at home. Two contrasting experiences really brought this idea into perspective for me, recently.

One of my responsibilities as Assistant Dean of Students at Ono Academic College’s School of Society and the Arts, is to offer graduation addresses at the diploma awarding ceremonies. In some cases, I confer the degrees upon the graduates.  In this role, I eagerly use my skills and background to make the experience meaningful for those attending the ceremony. Not surprisingly, the exercise always turns out to be very fulfilling for me personally, as well.

Earlier this summer, I gave two commencement addresses in Arabic. You can see one here (I’ve put in subtitles for non-native speakers interested in understanding what I was saying). I am very proud of the time I spent learning Arabic, the native language of many of my fellow citizens and friends. Some of our programs of study have a high percentage of Arabic-speaking students. When the opportunity arose to make them feel at home, welcomed, and heard, in the ceremony marking the completion of their educational journey with us, I jumped in eager excitement to make use of my skills. I prepared a speech with the help of my colleagues and friends using the idioms and style of Arabic rhetoric. Following the commencement address, I received some very positive reinforcement from the students and their families. After one graduation, in which the Arabic-speaking students hailed mostly from the Center or North of the country, they and their families addressed me in Hebrew and told me how appreciative they were of the gesture.  After another ceremony, in which the Arabic-speaking students hailed mostly from East Jerusalem, where the teaching of Hebrew is less common, most spoke to me in Arabic, marveling at “The Jew who can speak Arabic”.  I’m embarrassed to say that instead of going deep and establishing more profound connections, I brought the conversations to a relatively quick closure, not wanting to disappoint them with the limits of my Arabic.  However, I was so gratified that I was able to make the graduates and their families feel at home.

Earlier this week, I spoke at another graduation ceremony whose population included many ultra-Orthodox Jews and fell back on the forms, conventions and content that I have become familiar with over the years of my Torah study in order to make them feel at home (You can view the video here, with English subtitles). One of the biggest challenges we have set for ourselves as an institution has been to ease the integration of ultra-Orthodox Jews into general society, something we view as a critical national mission. It is clear to us that higher education is a critical (and possibly the most critical tool) for incorporating this sector into the workforce and we have dedicated a lot of work to building and running programs of study that uphold our standards of academic excellence while simultaneously creating environments in which the ultra-Orthodox students can feel at home. As I prepared a short introduction to my reading of the degree conferral, I realized that the other faculty speakers would not have a familiarity with the idioms and rhythms of ultra-Orthodox life.  I trusted that their speeches would be introspective and inspiring (and they truly were) but concluded that I was blessed with a unique combination of experiences and abilities to address them in a form that would make them feel recognized for who they were, on their terms. The class day speaker who proceeded me was an outstanding female graduate who related to the Torah portion that was read in synagogue the day before.  I chose to speak to next week’s portion, Re’eh, which opens with the address Moses gives to the Children of Israel before they enter the Land.  He tells them that they must choose between blessing and curse.  I noted that the speech was actually reminiscent of a commencement address, in which Moses, the Israelites’ educator in chief, says that he has given the people everything that he has, and it is now up to them to make good choices. In the framework of a traditional “dvar torah”, I told the graduates, that after we educators, administrators and staff had shared with them everything that we could teach, I was sure they would make the right choices. Following the ceremony, the graduates and their families wished me a hearty “Yasher Koach”, the traditional blessing given to someone after the completion of a mitzvah or the provision of a Torah insight. They told me how meaningful my addition was to the ceremony and how much it made them feel like they were in the right place. Unfortunately, one family with the surname Schwartz was very disappointed to learn that my ancestors came from Galicia because they were hoping I was from the line of Romanian Schwartz’s, as they were. Thankfully, with some goodwill (and me noting, after some prodding, that it is possible that some of my family did come from Romania, after all) we were able to overcome this division and keep our eyes on our underlying brotherhood.

One might think, especially in light of religious and political gulfs that separate these two graduating groups I spoke to, that the experience of addressing them would feel very disparate.  “B(i)l3aks” or “Adaraba” (“To the contrary”) as they say.  My experience of using the skills and experiences I’ve been blessed with, in order to make other people feel more at home, has been identical, no matter who the audience is.