Alum Tanya Gershon (’05) addresses the class of 2015 on the day of their graduation, June 14, 2015.
Dean Rabbi Dr. Matanky, Members of the Board, Esteemed Rabbaim, brilliant Faculty, Honored Grandparents, Parents, Siblings, Families, Guests and the incredibly talented class of 2015.
Ten years ago, almost to the day, I sat exactly where you are sitting. I was president of the Student Council, manager of the Lady Aces for four years, a participant in Panim El Panim, a member of the girl’s choir, a madricha in Bnei Akiva and an NCSY advisor, along with many other commitments that filled a college activities resume. But as I sat in this room I remember feeling nervous, excited, exhausted from AP Exams, apprehensive and honestly, a pang of sadness, that my incredible Academy experience was coming to an end. So many things were changing and as a planner the unknown was not my forte.
But today I want to talk about something that only a few of us in this room have in common, it is something elite that has shaped our characters and made us into who we are today. This club is reserved for Academy students who may be bright, but have moments where our parents question that intelligence and worry that we might not really do well in school. I am referring to those of us who have sat in early morning detention.
Sitting in early morning detention allows one to reflect on that conversation that took place through passed notes while listening to a substitute teacher give the lesson plan for Rabbi Gutstein’s double period class during your freshman year. It allows you to think, perhaps listening to your best friend when she said we should ditch the second period of a double period class now seems foolish, but at the time you remember it sounding really amazing. It allows you to think of the look that Mr. Harris gave you as you walked down to his office after hearing your name called over the intercom. At the time you thought your Mom was in the office and wanted to drop something off, but you would have been wrong. You would internalize the scene and hear Mr. Harris saying to you and your oldest friend and apparent partner in crime, “Seriously Tanya? I mean come on, this detention is for poor execution and I am disappointed.”
As we sat in detention, on that fateful day, in a room filled with renegades and without air conditioning – which should come as no surprise for those of you who are fans of the famous motion picture staring Jacob Zwelling, I mean, Rabbi Matanky explaining the importance of education over thermal comfort. We realized we truly did not “know it all.” We had not even thought through the fact that we were two of very few Academy students to attend Yehudah Moshe, which resulted in a walk of shame into shul that Shabbos, followed by profuse apologies to Rabbi Gutstein at Kiddush and the promise of doing extra credit.
I don’t think Rabbi Gutstein knows this but my extra credit was learning asher yatzar, a particularly beautiful prayer, by heart, and to this day I remain grateful to him that I know every single word.
So if you are sitting here thinking I am proud of my child today but honestly, I have questioned if they will go far, breathe a sigh of relief and congratulate yourselves on a job well done. Because 14 years later they will get a call where they are asked to speak at the Academy graduation.
There are many lessons that I have learned since my freshman year at ICJA and there are also many things I wish I knew as I sat in this room ten years ago preparing to move on to the foreboding “real world.” I wish I had known that after four years of 12 periods a day, five classes a semester would feel like a breeze. I wish someone would have told me that despite going to a small school in the Midwest, the wealth of knowledge and study skills I learned in Ms. Sennett’s classes would put me in a position that outranked my peers at Barnard and Columbia who came from top schools all over the world. Or that AP European History would influence me to fall in love with Art History and result in my first position as a curator for an exhibit on the New Acropolis Museum in Athens. Or that going to tutorials several lunch periods a week with Mrs. Engle and editing for the Crown Prints with Mrs. Goldstein would be the foundation for a prolific writing and editing career for an international publication that would eventually fully fund my graduate studies. Or that the Mishnah, Halacha and AJSP courses from Rabbi Gutstein through Rabbi Kurtz, that I sometimes took for granted, would become the essential skills for deductive reasoning and research that I conduct on a daily basis, as well as the fundamental tools to explore and question my yahaduth. It was in those courses that I gained the foundation to not complacently accept something as halacha or mussar without knowing its source and where to find several other sources to fully understand why, and feel comfortable with how I practice Judaism.
And I definitely wish someone would have told me that the countless hours I spent in Mrs. Strimling’s math classes and lunch tutorials would prepare me to fly through Calculus II and my architecture studios in undergrad, fulfilling all of my pre requisites for graduate school and being admitted to every graduate school I wanted to go to in the country including Yale, Penn and Columbia.
Can you imagine how much easier life would have been had I known all of this ten years ago?!
But then I wouldn’t be who I am today. It is precisely the grueling all nighters, extra time spent in office hours to fully grasp the material, the stressful and difficult decisions and choices I made that built my confidence, and instigated the conversations with advisors who said, “Tanya, you should apply for that grant,” or go for that internship, or take that course, or apply to graduate schools I thought were completely out of my reach. All of which led me specifically here today.
As you go forward on your journey and you continue your Academy story remember this, the next 10 years are for figuring out who you are, what your values are and who you want to become. You are not defined by what yeshiva, seminary or gap year program you attend or what college you choose to go to. It is the experiences and people you encounter in those places, it is the opportunities that you will face all the time and the ones you choose to pursue that will help inform your intellect and your character. What will help shape you are the classes that you take in topics out of your comfort zone, like the American Film History course I took on a whim where we watched movies that shaped pop culture ranging from Hitchcock to the God Father. You might be thinking what does this have to do with architecture, but I wrote my papers on analyzing the spaces in the films and the framing techniques to study spatial influence on human psychological behavior. One of the most important choices you will make over the next few years is your involvement in Jewish life on campus, your exposure to new cultures and friends with whom you can share your love of religion and respect their values and ideology even if it differs from your own. Some of the hardest and most rewarding moments in my life took place in graduate school where I was the only religious Jew in my program at Columbia University. On one special occasion my architecture studio went to Japan for a week and left on Shabbos. Two of my non-Jewish friends insisted on flying with me two days early so I could be there when the program began on Sunday. They knew how important my faith was to me and wanted to respect that choice. While perhaps not the most leibidick Shabbos, I lit my candles, we ate dinner together, read books and went for walks. It is these people who have helped propel my academic and professional career further, through tolerance, understanding and genuine friendship.
Just as important is understanding and respecting Jews from all different backgrounds. Being a part of the Shabbat Meals Committee at Barnard/Columbia’s Hillel was an unbelievable experience that brought the greater Jewish community together and served as the forum for me to meet some of my closest friends.
The next part of your journey will be filled with tough decisions and incredible opportunities. Have faith in your self, stimulate your mind, and allow your views to evolve and change over time. Embrace your strong ethical and familial values, let them permeate into your own life once you leave home so that you can experience new beginnings, conquer challenges and create new milestone along the path to find out who you are.
This week I turned 28 years old. My proudest accomplishment to date is founding the South African Street Artist Initiative in Johannesburg to help street performers bring their art to public space. I work with urban planners, public policy makers and unbelievably talented artists using the same negotiating skills and people skills that I developed during lunch tutorials with the faculty at ICJA that have helped me befriend people from all different walks of life. I defend and love the State of Israel. I work as an architectural designer in New York City. I am a three generation ICJA alum and a proud Chicago girl through and through. I am married to Joseph Warshawsky, who is supportive of me in everything that I do and makes me feel like I can accomplish anything.
This is my Academy story, and I cannot wait to listen to yours.