When Ambassador of Israel Michael Oren took the podium Jan. 13 at Monmouth University’s winter commencement, he first acknowledged his hometown credentials, thanking the students for welcoming a “former New Jersey boy — Exit 145 and proud of it.”
In his address at the ceremony during which the university awarded about 650 undergraduate and graduate degrees, Oren called upon the students to face the bleak economy with determination and courage. He urged them to emulate the perseverance of their grandparents’ generation during the Great Depression, as well as the tenacity of Israelis who built a thriving nation despite many obstacles.
“A generation of Americans wrestled with economic hardships during the Depression and battled against their enemies. They won World War II and the Cold War, and then produced the most prosperous period in the history of America,” he told the audience in the Multipurpose Activity Center on the university’s West Long Branch campus. “We called them The Greatest Generation. They overcame adversity and achieved the unimaginable, without once asking anything in return.”
Oren acknowledged representatives of that generation — including his parents, Lester and Marilyn Bornstein of West Orange, who were sitting in the bleachers. As the Bornsteins’ beaming faces were broadcast on the big screen, applause swept through the audience of about 3,500.
“My mom worked her way through college and became a teacher, then a family therapist. My dad fought his way across France and Germany to help defeat the evils of Nazism, served in the Korean War, then came home to be a health care leader in Newark,” the ambassador said.
“In Israel our greatest generation survived the Holocaust and returned to the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. They brought deserts to life, created a vibrant culture, with world-class universities and a resilient democracy,” he said. “They fought wars for their independence and defense, often alone, without allies.
“But still they refused to hate their enemies, and throughout history they held out their hands for peace.”
Today Israel is “a high-tech powerhouse, a world leader in science, medicine, and conservation, with a strong and proud citizens’ army, universal healthcare, free education, and college tuition of only about $3,000 a year.
“It has awesome rock music, outstanding food, and even exports wine to France,” Oren said.
“But most of all Israel has a historical alliance with the U.S. based on deep mutual spiritual bonds and a common democratic system of values. It is the deepest and most multifaceted alliance that the U.S. has had with any foreign country in the post-World War II period.”
Later Oren’s father told NJJN that, while growing up in West Orange, his son decided at the age of 15 that he wanted to become Israel’s ambassador to America. He was relentless in his pursuit to move to Israel and contribute to its growth, his father said
“When he was 15, he volunteered to work on a kibbutz, but they told him he was too young,” Bornstein said. “He called the kibbutz every day to tell them how mature he was and how little trouble he would be. Eventually they gave in. The more he became involved with the growth of Israel, the more he wanted to keep going back.”
Oren adopted his Israeli surname in the 1970s, after moving to Israel, where he and his wife, Sally, raised their three children. “Michael has boundless energy and is totally inspired by his work. It’s the greatest challenge of his life,” the ambassador’s wife told NJJN at the commencement ceremony. “What’s unique about Michael is his deep understanding of both cultures and histories. I can’t think of anybody who can explain the Americans to the Israelis, and the Israelis to the Americans as Michael can.”
Ambassador Oren was introduced by Monmouth University president Paul G. Gaffney II, and was presented with an honorary degree by life trustee Stephen M. Parks. Harry S. Pozycki, chair of The Citizens Campaign, a nonpartisan volunteer civic empowerment group, also received an honorary degree.
Many prominent members of the Monmouth County Jewish community were invited to attend a pre-commencement lunch with Oren and his family at the university’s historic Wilson Hall.
“I really enjoyed speaking to the ambassador’s parents and am very pleased to have Michael Oren as our commencement speaker,” said Sol Greenspan, a member of MU’s business council and a 1969 graduate. “Supporting the university is a very important part of my life.”
Gerald Ostrov of Long Branch said Oren’s address captured the same messages his Israel advocacy firm — the Strategic Communication Center — strives to convey.
“Young people in Israel and the USA have common dreams and values,” Ostrov said. “Both societies have fought through difficult times before and can do it again because of the positive spirit of the people.
“Our research shows that most Americans are unaware of the truth about Israelis and their society — that Israel is a democratic, vibrant, diverse, broadly secular, innovative country that is similar in so many ways to the USA.”
Oren concluded his address on an optimistic note. “This is the time to make your mark. This is your destiny — to tackle the challenges, to develop the grit and the thick skin, and ultimately to prevail,” he said.
“If your grandparents’ generation could overcome such obstacles, just think what you can do. You will do all of that, and I assure you that you will be the next Greatest Generation.”