Victor Zhivich's graduation speech

To start with, I was both surprised and honored to give a speech at this senior graduation ceremony.  I was surprised because all of the seniors graduating this year are so talented and so smart, and I was flattered to be chosen among them to deliver this speech.

When I was offered to give a speech, I was excited, and a little overwhelmed.  I was not sure what I should say. Should it be enlightening? Should it be motivational?  Maybe funny? Well funny is out, because I am only funny when I’m not trying to be.  Thank you all for laughing.  So with a little help from Victor Vitkin, and Professor Dubinina, I realized that a personal speech would be best. 

So the only real place to start this speech would be at the beginning. Its hard to believe that four years have passed since the inception of BGI. It all started when the seniors before you were freshmen. And while I can’t speak for others, I think they were all as nervous about BGI as I was.  When I came to the first meeting, it was at the very beginning of school, I knew close to no one, and was struggling to find ASAC.  When I arrived, there were a bunch of older classmen, swapping summer vacation stories and talking about all of the classes they were shopping.  You can shop classes, I thought? These upper classmen all seemed so comfortable, as if they owned the place so to speak.

At first, I was pretty intimidated by them, after all they had more volunteering experience, and just college experience in general.  But once I went on a retreat with them, I got to know them a lot better and they soon became my friends, and even more so than my friends, they became a second family to me.  A few names for those who remember, we had Julia Rabkin, Julian Olidort, Eli Tukachinsky, Nera Lerner, Helen Shapiro, Vlad Lukashevsky and Diana Aronin.  I would love to talk about each and everyone of them, because they have colored my experience at BGI so profoundly, but simply for the sake of time, and not killing you with boredom, I will detail only a couple.

As I mentioned earlier, the first place I got to know the seniors was on the first retreat BGI went on was to the Berkshires. It is there that I got a taste of what BGI is, a safe space, where one can explore our unique roots and learn about our shared history.  I learned a lot from that retreat, and perhaps more importantly it set the foundations for further discussion.  Some of the most educational moments for me came from having long conversations with Julian about Russian Jewish identity and if you could be Jewish if you were not religious.  For those who know him, he was always interested in talking about Jewish identity, because prior to BGI, he nor I had thought that being Jewish could be achieved through solely cultural means.  It came as a sudden realization, that there was a plurality of Jewish identity.  Irina Dubinina gave a very nice analogy of this concept; -“ If all races were flowers, we would initially imagine one specific kind of flower representing Jews. However, the more you study and learn about the Jewish race, the more you realize it’s really a bouquet, where every single one is a Jew, and it is only when you look at the bouquet as a whole, that you can gain an appreciation for the complexity and diversity that is the Jewish race” Because of these conversations/connections I had with Julian, I was invited to help him plan a BGI plus retreat, the first of its kind in the history of BGI. 

Helping Julian gave me a true appreciation of how much goes into planning an event for us.  Julian had countless meetings where we discussed the programming, location, and most importantly what the shirts should have printed on them. 

Most importantly though, BGI made look inward and start asking questions about my own family roots.  Prior to BGI, I assumed I knew everything I needed to know about my parents and grandparents.  I knew how my parents met, what they studied, I knew about their summer house in Latvia and how wonderful it was.  But I never thought to frame any of my questions in a Jewish context before.  Thus as my project my freshman year, I decided to interview my grandfather and his brother about what life was like living in soviet Russia as a Jew.  It quickly dawned to me that I knew close to nothing about my roots.  My grandfather began telling me about what his grandparents did, a story I wonder if many of you sitting here today know.  From all the stories my grandfather told, many concepts came to light.  For one, my perception of Russia as an overly anti-semitic country changed.  The issues at hand were simply not black and white.  Russia was not the worst place in the world, but it did have its issues.  One common issue, that I’m sure many of your parents experienced if they grew up in Russia, is that Jewish students were not allowed to apply to the highest and most prestigious Universities.  If you sent your application to them, they would not even look at it, even if you were a fantastic candidate. This may seem pretty black and white in terms of anti-Semitism, but there were other Universities that would accept applications from brilliant people such as my parents and my grandfather.  In essence, Russia was not a place that made life miserable for all Jews, if such was the case, no one who is Jewish would ever stay there, after all what would there be to stay for.

            I think the part that hurt the most about this for my parents, and for many of your parents, was simply being denied the chance to study where they wanted.  And being denied an opportunity because of race was not something my parents wanted their children growing up with.  So they emigrated to a foreign country, with little knowledge of English, and even fewer belongings.  They uprooted their lives in Russia, where they were well off financially, had good work, and where all their friends were. They had no idea how they would make it in America, but they did it for one reason: The American Dream.  America is the land of opportunity. With hard work, you can achieve anything you want here.  And it has come as no surprise to me that my parents have achieved so much in the U.S. They are the hardest workers I know. They have given me the opportunity to stand here before you, at an institution with Jewish roots, where in my why Brandeis short answer application, I highlighted my Russian-Jewish identity.  The very opposite of their experience in Russia.  Here I am able to embrace my identity whole heartedly, and the opportunities are so plentiful, that the challenge is knowing what to even pursue. We are all very lucky here, because the opportunities are simply limitless and I encourage all of you, to take advantage of them.

I would like to thank BGI for all the incredible learning opportunities that have come through classes, BGI events, projects, and even discussions amongst BGI members.  Thank you for putting together such a wonderful group of fellows, who have profoundly enhanced my Brandeis experience.   I would like to give a big thank you to all the BGI fellows, Ilya Salita, and everyone who showed up today to witness the first full class of BGI graduate.  A huge thanks to Irina Dubinina and Victor Vitkin, without whom this speech would have never been written. And of course, to my parents, who wouldn’t stand for letting me have anything but the best.