Julian Olidort 

Members of the faculty, staff, esteemed Guests, students, and fellow BGIchiki:

I believe there are only a handful of people in this audience who remember the foundations of the BGI program at Brandeis, just over two years ago. It started out with a brainstorming session hosted by Dan Terris. (Free pizza was provided, of course). From that summer until now, the institute, along with it's programming, fellowship, and recognition on this campus have grown tremendously through our dedication.

But what were we dedicated to? What is this thing we have developed, and how, if at all, have we grown from it?

Our journey as fellows didn't begin with our acceptance into the first graduating class of this institute. We have all been raised with a unique thing in common. We all come from Russian Jewish American homes. Or Jewish Russian American. Or American Russian Jewish. Take your pick. While we may not have been raised together, we share a very unique set of gifts (or burdens) upon which we have been raised: customs, dishes, language, interests and values-- all of which united us even before we came to college.

But the BGI has finally provided us with a forum in which to grow together, and further develop the values and understanding of our very own demographic-that of first generation, Russian-heritage speaking, American Jews, raised in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. This is our very own, brand-new culture, and we are the ones who will raise it (and feed it all sorts of Russian goodies).

So what did we actually do at the BGI, and what do we actually come away with?

We have hosted lectures, dinners, exhibitions and retreats. We've invited world-renowned speakers-award-winning writers, champion athletes, and, of course, members of the academy. We volunteered with elderly residents at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center-sharing stories, singing songs, remembering The Great Patriotic War, The war. We've touched the extensive network of the Russian Jewish community of the greater Boston area. One of has even written a book-an illustrated children's hagadah for the Passover Seder. In these two years, we have reinforced our self-image by using our combined energy to share our culture and heritage with other students and other communities.

But none of us are walking home with a prize next week. (Fine, we get diplomas to note the completion of our education, but not for our BGI work specifically). As the first graduating class of the Brandeis-Genesis Institute, we've done so much, but let me ask you- so what? What have we produced?

Our involvement and our work does not culminate. We didn't build anything that we could put on a shelf after we graduate, and say "I built that as a BGI Fellow". So what is it that we've done? When we walk away from here, what is it that makes us proud to have been part of this program?

What we've done here is start a conversation. In fact, we've started a few conversations. Through the BGI, we started a conversation, with each other as fellows. We've had this conversation with professors and the faculty of the institute and the academy. We've taken the conversation home to our families. But most importantly, we've started the conversation with ourselves.

"What are all these conversations?" you might ask. Well, they are the very same conversation, in fact. That of our... here goes... identity (I know, I've beaten that word to a pulp by this point. Forgive me.). We, as the first graduating class of the Brandeis-Genesis Institute, have planted seeds across the student community that have put our name and our values on the map. And it is this conversation, that we've pioneered and nurtured through our personal and collective initiatives, and that we now leave to the continuing and incoming BGI Fellows.

So where does that leave us, as we graduate and become the first class of BGI alums?

Needless to say, our conversation goes on. By which means and to what end, we will need to discover and decide for ourselves. But one thing remains constant that we must remember as we move on as individuals. That is where we've come from.

As Brandeis grads, we can confidently say that we've earned top degrees. But we've been encouraged to explore beyond our excellent education. We don't learn solely from theories, readings and lab work. We develop our aims and directions by establishing what is important to us-personally and socially. It is our values, not our theories that push us forward.

I'll spare you the lecture on the great worth of our education, as I'm sure we will be hearing plenty on the subject next week. But let me leave you with this thought, as it pertains to our commencement- the very first from the Genesis Institute.

We have all come from the same heritage, with similar backgrounds- but sometimes very different- values. In our time here, we have had the privilege of sharing our perspectives on Russian Jewry- the food, the immigrant experience, politics, religion, and anything else that falls under ‘culture'. But we are not all going to the same place after graduation.

All I can wish for us as we leave the warmth of this home and move on as individuals, is that we continue to develop our personal values while contributing-in whatever way we see fit-to the conversation we've started here.

With the degrees we receive next week, a lot of things will change. We will go on to work or study further or pursue any plans we may or may not have yet. But our common heritage stays the same. We must remember this wherever we go, and we must remember the journey we took to formulate our values. And we should remember, well, to stay in touch.  

A few brief words of thanks:

Lisa Fay

Prof. Irina Dubinina

Dan Terris

GPG

And our enthusiasm for the direction and energy of Victor Vitkin's new leadership.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this program, and am honored to stand here, among the BGI graduating class of 2011.  

Thank you.