When you have a commencement ceremony for a group of graduating students who are largely educators, who better to have as a speaker than a fellow educator?
Gratz College’s 118th commencement will take place on May 6 and feature keynote speaker Wagner Marseille, Cheltenham School District superintendent.
He has an established relationship with Gratz: The college and the school district worked together in the beginning of the year to assist in ongoing instances of violence the district was having within its schools. As Gratz offers a master’s program in safe schools, the school approached Marseille about working together to fix the problem.
It resulted in a customized program of four contracted workshops, which started in October 2017 and continued through the school year.
“We thought Dr. Mareille had a lot to say about how he was trying to solve what is a global issue, or at least an issue in the United States, with teachers having trouble creating communication — good communication — in classrooms,” noted Dodi Klimoff, who organizes Gratz’s commencement ceremonies and serves as executive assistant to the president. “Most [graduates] are educators, and so we thought it would be really good for them to hear what Dr. Marseille had to say.”
The 78 graduating students — 25 of whom are walking in the ceremony — are largely graduate students receiving Master of Arts degrees in subjects such as Holocaust and genocide studies, Jewish education, nonprofit management and so on.
However, they aren’t the only students receiving degrees at commencement.
Josey Fisher, director of the Holocaust Oral History Archive and instructor in Holocaust and genocide studies, will receive an honorary doctorate at the ceremony.
She has been working on gathering testimonies from Holocaust survivors for the last 40-plus years. The testimonies, which have been translated by Fisher’s team of volunteers from languages such as Yiddish and German, will soon be available digitally through Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which Klimoff said is “very, very exciting.”
“They’ve been doing that for 40 years, and it’s a huge volume of work,” Klimoff said. “We wanted to honor Josey and her group of volunteers with an honorary doctorate because she certainly deserves a great honor for the work that she’s done.”
Fisher is grateful for the recognition and the opportunity to have her work preserved for future generations.
“My years at Gratz have been intellectually challenging and professionally rewarding,” she said. “It is so gratifying to know that the testimonies in the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Archive will be preserved and that our work with Holocaust educators has moved into powerful advanced degree programs.”
In addition to Fisher, noted attorney and scholar Alan Dershowitz will receive an honorary doctorate from Gratz when he serves as the guest speaker for the school’s gala on May 24.
For Klimoff, having Dershowitz as the speaker offers an opportunity for discussion.
“What Gratz is trying to say by inviting him is that what Alan Dershowitz does is, he makes people think,” she said, acknowledging he is a bit of a polarizing figure. “It’s important for Gratz to always be presenting materials that makes people think and to look at issues — world issues, issues around Israel — from all perspectives and to understand there are different truths for different people.”
Dershowitz will participate in a conversation with Gratz President Paul Finkelman, who will also field questions from the audience.
Klimoff hopes attendees take advantage of the opportunity to ask Dershowitz questions and challenge the famous attorney.
“We’re trying to create a community conversation with Alan Dershowitz,” she said. “He is a great scholar and we are honoring him for his scholarship, but we also want to present him to the community to have a chance to challenge him and to ask him questions and learn from his scholarship.”
For her, while it will be great to hear from the speakers and honorary degree holders, the commencement is largely a chance to honor the students.
There will be a brass quartet that plays each year as the graduates begin to walk down the aisle, a moment that always makes Klimoff tear up, she laughed.
As the students mostly study online — the courses are offered in seven countries around the world — the ceremony will be a chance for them to meet their teachers and each other, perhaps for the first time.
“First, we want to honor our graduates and make them feel so special,” she said. “They’ve done a huge amount of work to get to where they are, and we want to honor that work and how they have grown. This lets them how much we appreciate them and that we want to keep connected with them as they continue on in their career. That’s really the main part of this commencement is all about our wonderful students and we’re very proud of them.”