President Bush Highlights Hanukkah Convocation, Despite Miscues
By: David Mehl
Prestigious speakers have long been a hallmark of Yeshiva University's Annual Hanukkah Convocation and Dinner, but the ninetieth of these events, which took place on Sunday, December 14th, was headlined by arguably the most prominent and influential person to ever address the yearly gathering: former President George W. Bush.
The convocation, which took place before the dinner in front of over 750 people, began with the entrance of department heads, members of the Board of Trustees and others, who took seats on the stage behind the speakers' podium. After the procession concluded, President Bush ascended the stage, accompanied by President Joel, resplendent in distinctive robes of royal blue with a massive, gold-colored Yeshiva University logo hanging from a chain. The ceremony opened with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner by Cantor Joseph Malovany, cantor of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue and Distinguished Professor of Liturgical Music at the Belz School of Jewish Music. After a succession of short speeches, Ingeborg Rennert formally called on Mr. Bush to receive his honorary degree, a Doctorate of Humane Letters. Throughout the formal ceremony, President Bush appeared remarkably relaxed and nonchalant, exchanging jokes with President Joel and others sitting nearby, even playfully swatting Joel at one point. Bush's casual demeanor turned out to be quite fortuitous, as it helped minimize the effect of the miscues which plagued the ceremony.
First, President Joel was unable to locate the citation which he was to read to Mr. Bush, and was therefore forced to ad-lib the beginning, which he did remarkably well until the text of the citation was found. "What an honor it is to have you as part of the Yeshiva University family," he said. "We celebrate you for the steadfastness of your integrity, for your commitment to democracy, and your clarity of vision that only in a democratic society can people achieve and grow and thrive. Put simply, you taught Americans that democracy is a condition for civilization." When the citation had been read, Bush stepped forward to receive his diploma - but there was no diploma at the lectern. "I know you're an organized guy," Bush gibed Joel at the start of his speech.
Bush's speech was brief and delivered without a prepared text. He began on a lighthearted note as he expressed his thanks for the honorary degree, feigning surprise that "a C-student like me" would receive a doctorate. During his presidency, "there were a lot of folks who didn't even think I could read," quipped Bush, who holds degrees from both Yale University and Harvard Business School.
The speech turned serious as Bush began to talk about about his father, former President George H. W. Bush, and the warm relationship that they have long shared. Retelling several stories from his recent book, 41: A Portrait of My Father, Bush described the forty-first President - who was also once the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University - as a good man, a loving father, and a courageous leader whose decisions were vindicated by history. When the younger Bush reached the Oval Office, their bond attained a new dimension, even though the two rarely discussed policy. He movingly recounted his father clasping his shoulder after an emotional speech at the National Cathedral in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and the wordless emotions that passed between them. "Well - buy the book," Bush jocularly admonished the audience, breaking the tension and eliciting scattered laughter.
Next, Bush talked about the institution which was awarding him the degree. Admitting that he had little prior knowledge of Yeshiva University, Bush told the crowd that what he learned about Yeshiva recently had greatly impressed him, in particular its staunch commitment to both quality secular education and religious faith. "Yeshiva University is a prestigious university and I am proud to accept this degree," he said.
One aspect of Yeshiva University that seemed to particularly impress the former president was Yeshiva's close ties with Israel. Noting with approval the high percentage of Yeshiva students who spend a portion of their college years studying in Israel, he insisted that students who experienced Israeli life would be better equipped for the responsibilities of citizenship. "Students leave Yeshiva with not only a fantastic education," he emphasized, "but as better citizens of the world."
When the speech concluded, Bush, with diploma finally in hand, exited the room to sustained applause.
Three other guests of honor were recognized that night. Michael Gamson, senior managing director of Freepoint Commodities, LLC., philanthropist Judith Weiss, and Anita G. Zucker, Chair and CEO of The InterTech Group, Inc., each received honorary degrees. Later in the ceremony, eight people were recognized as "Points of Light" - students, faculty, or alumni who "exemplify the mission of Yeshiva University" - and called to each light one candle on a ceremonial menorah.
The University raised $4.2 million dollars at the event, its primary annual fundraiser.