NCJW CEO Sheila Katz’s 2022 Commencement Speech at Ithaca College, Her Alma Mater
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), delivered the commencement address at her alma mater, Ithaca College, drawing the graduates’ attention to the deceptively simple question of how they will “show up” at a time of complicated challenges facing their country.
Here is the full text of her speech:
To the Class of 2022: Congratulations!
It’s an honor to play a small role on your big day. And it’s wonderful to come home to Ithaca.
Being here brings back vivid memories: wandering around Talcott my first year, jumping in the fountain before graduation, eating way too much DP Dough.
Even opening the door in Emerson Hall to find my friends passed out on the floor —
Don’t worry, President Cornish, it was just an RA training activity.
I loved working as an RA — it was one of the most meaningful parts of my college experience.
The training taught me how to show up for the people around me and notice them when they were in need.
After college, I incorporated those trainings into my work as a teacher, a faith leader, and the advocate I am today.
I’ve had the privilege to meet with the President, lead and speak at rallies, help write and pass legislation like the Violence Against Women Act, and celebrate historic wins, like confirming Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.
And that’s just in the past few weeks!
So you might think I’m here to talk about ways to make big change in Washington. I’m not.
Instead, I want to talk about something much more radical: the ways we show up for people.
Showing up sounds simple. Bringing soup for a friend when they are sick or sharing notes with a classmate when they had to miss class.
But really showing up for people isn’t just a one-time thing. It’s an intentional and lifelong effort in which you engage for the people you love. The people you’ve chosen.
You’re affecting them on the deepest level — and you’re dedicating yourself to them not just one day, but every day.
I’m inspired by a quote from Hillel the Elder, one of the most influential rabbis in history — for whom Ithaca College Hillel, my home base while I was a student here, is named.
He said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Today, I’d like to talk through these questions — what they mean, how they relate to showing up, and how I hope you can use them on your journey.
Let’s start with the first line. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
We tend to think of showing up as something we do for others. But you cannot show up for others without first showing up for yourself.
That can be hard because it requires us to be radically honest about how we are really doing — in a moment when it is so easy to lie.
We do it so often, we may not even think of it as lying.
Maybe we tell a friend about how great our weekend was and leave out the part where we were crying on the floor listening to Taylor Swift.
Or maybe we post an Insta about how excited we are when, actually, we’re feeling pretty nervous — which I may or may not have done this morning.
It can often feel like everyone else has their life together but you. News flash: they don’t.
They are just doing the same thing you are: trying to make their life seem a little more glamorous, and a little more filtered, than it is.
This contributes to insecurities, low self-esteem, and even depression — yet most of us perpetuate this, whether we are consuming it or posting it.
I’ve wasted days, if not years, thinking about how I come across, whether people will like me, what to wear and what I look like.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a bit better at dealing with it, sure — but I still felt it walking up on this stage today.
And it’s no wonder! Young people, and young women in particular, are told over and over again that we aren’t enough.
We’re given impossible standards on how to look, how to act, how to talk, how to exist.
And God forbid we do something just for ourselves, or make a mistake, or try to make decisions about our own bodies.
And I’m white! For Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who are women, non-binary, or trans, the standards are so much higher and harder to meet.
When we apply these impossible standards to our own lives, we often feel like we are doing something wrong. Like we don’t belong.
We feel like imposters.
But we have to remember that what may feel like imposter syndrome isn’t an individual problem.
Imposter syndrome is just an attempt to make you feel like you are to blame for how the rest of the world has made you feel.
It is a symptom of a system that was not designed for all of us.
There is no question that an individual taking action against a system is a radical act. So it becomes a radical act to choose to love yourself. To look in the mirror and accept all of what you see.
If I hadn’t let impossible standards rule my life when I was younger, I could’ve gotten out of my head more often and enjoyed the moments in front of me.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself not to spend all my emotional energy on pleasing others. So here I am saying it to you:
Please, please, don’t buy into the lies we have been taught. Unlearn that you are unworthy.
Show up for yourself with kindness and compassion. Prioritize your well-being.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? It is a radical act to love yourself. It is hard, lifelong work.
But it is necessary if we want to show up as our best selves for others.
That brings us to the second line of Hillel’s quote: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
After you put on your own oxygen mask, you look to help your neighbor with theirs.
I’ve always wondered how different our communities would be if when we asked, “How are you?” we actually waited and listened to the answer.
And if someone told us, “I’m good,” or, “I’m fine,” we replied with, “How are you, really?”
Maybe, then, they’d tell us they spent the weekend crying on the floor listening to Taylor Swift.
So: How are you, really?
Each and every one of us here today has endured trauma.
For starters, we’re all still living through a global pandemic — one that has taken more than a million people from us in the United States alone.
To the students participating virtually because you are sick, hi. Sorry you can’t be here. We are sending you love.
To the families participating virtually because you are sick, thank you for keeping the rest of us safe.
And Covid isn’t the only thing most of us are navigating.
We’re dealing with mental health challenges that the pandemic has made harder, student loan debt that has likely grown larger, and our own, private traumas all at once.
It’s not always obvious when someone needs help with their own mask.
I remember when I worked on campus, sometimes, students would text me Sunday mornings just saying, “Hey.”
As a volunteer crisis counselor, I knew that “Hey” that early for a college student might not just be a hey.
So instead of engaging over text, I’d reply, “Where are you right now? Can I pick you up a coffee and come meet you?”
When I was wrong about the text, I was so relieved — and able to help the student start their day with a good cup of coffee.
And when I was right, I was able to show up properly for someone who needed me but didn’t know how to ask.
Because even people we know may be going through things we don’t know.
That act of noticing — going out of your way to show up for someone, listen to their story, or just sit quietly by their side (maybe with some coffee) — is the key to building the strong relationships that form the bedrock of an inclusive community.
For instance, when I was a senior here, the LGBTQ pride flag was stolen the same week that racist graffiti was found in the Towers.
In too many places, the LGBTQ and Black communities would have been forced to stand up for themselves, by themselves.
But here at Ithaca, my friend Emily Liu and a few others noticed their friends’ pain and helped organize a rally in solidarity.
Hundreds of us gathered at Free Speech Rock for the Erase the Hate rally and march — and showed our classmates and campus community how many of us were on their side.
You all showed similar allyship over the past year.
This time, swastikas were found on campus, targeting Ithaca’s Jewish community.
And, again, Ithaca students of all backgrounds showed up for one another, standing arm in arm against hate.
This is what community looks like. We need fierce allies. And we need ongoing allyship.
Because it shouldn’t just be Jewish people fighting antisemitism. It shouldn’t just be people of color fighting racism.
It shouldn’t just be women fighting sexism, Muslims fighting Islamophobia, people with disabilities fighting ableism, transgender people fighting transphobia…
The list goes on and on.
And if you’re someone who doesn’t feel targeted, you have one of the most important roles to play: noticing your power and privilege and showing up as a consistent ally to those in need.
If I am only for myself, what am I? We cannot just live in one another’s vicinity. We must live in one another’s community.
And we must start that work now.
That’s the final guidance in Rabbi Hillel’s quote: “If not now, when?”
The fact is, we never know which of our small actions might end up making a big difference.
Showing up at an organizing workshop might help someone make great change — without ever getting out of their seat.
In fact, it already has: That’s the story of Rosa Parks.
Unlike the story so many of us are wrongly told, Rosa Parks wasn’t tired at the end of a long day.
She showed up to an organizing training in a moment of despair, to try to take a small motion forward — and she ended up igniting a movement.
So often, the issues we face can feel overwhelming. But every great changemaker in history started by showing up just once.
We never know what the tipping point for change will be, or who will set it into motion.
But it starts with showing up — and when enough of us do, one of us is bound to create the ripples that can change the course of history.
It could be one of you.
That’s the ultimate wisdom Hillel the Elder passed on when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
So first: take a break. Take a nap. Go take a walk by the gorgeous gorges. You’ve earned it.
Once you’re ready, though, I want you to start asking yourselves:
If you are not for yourself, who will be for you?
If you are only for yourself, what are you?
And if not now, when?
May we all have the courage to take those steps — to show up for ourselves, for the people in our communities, and for the world, one small action at a time.
I’m excited to see the world you help shape. Thank you, and yasher ko’ach — congratulations. Wishing you strength and love on your journey.