By: Elisheva Kohn  | 

YU Celebrates 89th Commencement Ceremony Virtually

The Yeshiva University community gathered online to virtually honor the graduating Class of 2020 and celebrate its 89th Commencement Ceremony on the afternoon of Sunday, June 14. 

Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Selma Botman opened the ceremony, which began at 1 p.m., and President Ari Berman addressed the graduates. Other speakers included Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and Moshael Strauss, chairman of YU; unlike previous years, this year’s ceremony did not have a keynote speaker. The American national anthem, followed by the Israeli national anthem, was recited by the Maccabeats. All eight valedictorians held brief speeches while photos and names of the graduating Class of 2020 appeared on the video. 

The Commencement Ceremony also celebrated the first graduating class of the Makor College Experience at YU. “These seven students and their families are the trailblazers,” Dr. Stephen Glicksman, founder and director of the Makor program, told The Commentator. “They are also the ones who had been waiting their whole lives for a program like ours to give them their place at YU … this year's entire graduating class is the one that first welcomed and embraced our guys on campus and set the bar for inclusion and acceptance at YU for many generations to come.”

A segment of the program also paid tribute to loved ones of the university’s faculty, students, staff, alumni and friends who passed away from the coronavirus or other causes. A special tribute was dedicated to Saadya Ehrenpreis, a student of the Makor College Experience at YU, who passed away in May. 

Following the Commencement Ceremony, a second, virtual and private “after-party” celebration was held for the Class of 2020, which included trivia questions and other interactive online activities.

In the weeks leading up to Commencement, the graduates — international students included — received their caps and gowns in the mail, as well as graduation viewing kits, which contained various YU swag items. In some cases, YU employees personally delivered the graduation viewing kits and garbs to students residing in the Tri-State area. Graduates were asked to submit photos and videos of themselves in their caps and gowns prior to the ceremony to be included in the virtual event. 

Commenting on the graduation viewing kit she received, Sarah Ben-Nun (SCW ‘20) said, “The gesture itself of sending me a graduation kit, of acknowledging that this day should and can be celebratory ... even if it's not in person, is touching and meaningful.”

Videos of community leaders, politicians and celebrities congratulating YU’s Class of 2020 were posted on YU’s social media accounts in the weeks preceding Commencement. Among them were actress Mayim Bialik, filmmaker Nancy Spielberg, former basketball player Tamir Goodman, Israeli journalist Sivan Rahav Meir, human rights activist Natan Sharansky, former Senator and Vice Presidential Nominee Joseph Lieberman and others.

Senior Director of Events Aliza Berenholz Peled, in collaboration with Director of Marketing Matthew Schwartz, led the arrangements for the virtual Commencement Ceremony. “We wanted to make everyone feel part of the celebration, honor those that we lost and highlight the resilience of our graduates,” Berenholz Peled said. According to Berenholz Peled, “thousands of pieces of content” were submitted by the Class of 2020 prior to Commencement and later used for both the ceremony and the website. The photos and videos from the graduates “will live on as a virtual time capsule,” she added. 

Not all members of the Class of 2020 were happy about graduating virtually. Following the announcement in early March that all in-person classes and events, including the Commencement Ceremony, would be canceled for the remainder of the spring semester, Sarah Torgueman (SSSB ‘20) started an online petition titled “Postpone YU 2020 Commencement to the Fall,” asking the YU administration to hold a postponed in-person celebration instead of a virtual ceremony. Once the petition received over 500 signatures, Torgueman emailed the deans to tell them about the initiative, “to which they answered very nicely and compassionately,” she told The Commentator. 

“There were ongoing meetings with the deans, the [student] council presidents, and yearbook staff to organize something worthwhile and they certainly did,” explained Torgueman. She hopes an in-person ceremony will eventually be held to “celebrate our accomplishments and our time here at YU.” 

A YU spokesperson told The Commentator that the university is “looking into potential possibilities for an in-person graduation for our graduates sometime in the future.”

Prior to the virtual Commencement Ceremony on Sunday, a small gathering of YU students and faculty members took place at noon on Associate Dean for Torah Studies Shoshana Schechter’s front lawn in Monsey, NY, in honor of the graduates who live in the neighborhood. Dean of Students Chaim Nissel, Senior Director of Student Life Rabbi Josh Weisberg and Schechter addressed the 10 socially-distanced graduates. 

“It was a wonderful surprise, especially considering how quickly it was planned,” remarked Yehuda Goldfeder (YC ‘20), one of the graduates in attendance. “I got to march, throw up my cap and get a diploma from a dean.”

Graduating during a pandemic left some students feeling disoriented yet grateful. “I feel the emptiness of not being able to celebrate this poignant moment with the people who've been there all along — my family and my friends,” remarked Ben-Nun prior to Sunday’s virtual Commencement Ceremony. “At the same time, I am excited … this period of my life is coming to an end, it is getting recognized — albeit in a much smaller way — by a lot of people and it is still absolutely a celebration, even though I will experience it from my kitchen table.”

Photo caption: A screenshot of the virtual Commencement Ceremony
Photo creds: Yeshiva University