When Phil Friedman, CEO of Computer Generated Solutions (CGS), learned Hebrew for his bar-mitzvah, he had to do so in secret. He lived in the Soviet Union, and any outward expression of Jewish religion was not only discouraged but potentially dangerous for a Jew.
Phil, a member of the Yeshiva University Board of Trustees, knew then that religious education was something that every Jew should have the privilege of pursuing, regardless of external factors.
Phil's commitment to Jewish learning stayed with him throughout the years. After arriving in the United States in 1976, he took the $500 he had in his pocket and, with much hard work, perseverance and education, turned it into CGS, an international technology company that has a global presence, with 18 offices and over 3,000 employees.
This hard work and dedication earned him the means to become a generous supporter of YU. In 2009, he endowed the Alexander Friedman Scholarship Fund in honor of his father, and which awards five need-based scholarships each year, complete with offers of paid summer internships at CGS for the students and possible full-time employment once they graduate.
"Jewish causes have always been close to my heart," explains Phil, "since my days in the Soviet Union, when a Jew was not allowed to practice his religion openly. Jewish education is one such cause that I feel is extremely important, and I don't believe that Jewish students should be denied an education that teaches them their religion and beautiful heritage."
He continues, "Being involved in YU, the most prestigious and visibly Jewish institution of higher learning, gives me great pride. I feel very grateful to be able to give back and make it possible for many people who might not have had the chance to pursue Jewish studies to do so in such a fine place as YU."
Two of the Alexander Friedman Scholars this year are Sterna Benayoun and Omer Haim.
Sterna Benayoun, originally from Morocco, always knew she wanted to attend Stern College for Women. "When Jewish Moroccan teenagers graduate high school, they go to one of three places: Israel, Paris, or New York," Sterna explains. "I always knew I would go to New York, because I had heard about Yeshiva University and knew it would be the best place for me to thrive."
Yet Sterna, who comes from a modest background and a family raised by a single working mother, also knew she would need to rely on scholarship money to help cover the cost of tuition.
When Sterna applied to YU, she received partial-tuition support from the Alexander Friedman Scholarship Fund. Sterna met with Phil personally, along with the other Alexander Friedman Scholars, when he invited the students to meet with him in his office in lower Manhattan. He spoke with them about their backgrounds, academic programs of study, and their aspirations for the future.
"He showed us photos of his family," recalls Sterna, "and reached out to us as a father would to his own children. I was so impressed that he took the time to really try and get to know each of us personally, and offer his help to us."
Back at Stern College, Sterna began working different jobs to help cover more of her financial needs. She soon found herself working whenever she wasn't in class - in the cafeteria, and through baby-sitting and tutoring, in addition to balancing her double course load and the accompanying papers and studying.
"It got to a point where it was so hard to focus on class and participate in any kind of social activities, because I was working whenever I wasn't in school," explains Sterna. "I began thinking I would need to leave Stern, though I didn't want to go. I remembered Mr. Friedman told me during our previous meeting that if I ever needed anything, I should tell him, and so I decided to write him a letter explaining my situation."
Whatever Sterna was expecting to happen as a result, it certainly wasn't that Phil would invite her back to his office for a meeting so he could hear again from her personally, give her words of encouragement, and then immediately make a phone call to rectify the situation.
Soon, a significantly larger portion of Sterna's tuition was covered and she was able to scale back her work after classes, as well as have the peace of mind that comes with knowing one can focus more intensively on her studies and have time to spend with friends.
"I never met anybody as nice as Phil Friedman," declares Sterna. "He didn't just help financially, but personally as well. The fact that he took the time to reach out to me and just listen to what I was going through is a wonderful feeling."
Sterna, who is studying accounting and finance at Sy Syms School of Business, hopes to intern with Phil's company during the summer. "I hope to one day be in such a position where I can help others less fortunate than me, learning from Phil's example," she says.
Omer Haim, a sabra (Israeli-born), grew up with nary a Jewish ritual or tradition, and spent time as a teenager with people who were not, as he puts it, the best influence for a Jewish teenager. When a chance meeting with an inspiring rabbi arose, Omer's interest in learning more about his Jewish religion was ignited. Recruited to play Division II basketball at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, Omer found the environment less than conducive to his new interest in Torah.
After speaking to a coach he knew in Israel, who put him in touch with Dr. Jonathan Halpert, coach of the YU Maccabees, Omer enrolled in Yeshiva College, where he is currently a junior and proud recipient of the Alexander Friedman Scholarship. Now, he can pursue Jewish learning in an environment that encourages discovery of Jewish values and still offers him a wonderful secular education - and the chance to still play some basketball.
"I always thought YU was only a yeshiva, and not a university as well," says Omer. "When I learned that I could be exploring my Jewish background and still study secular subjects with amazing professors, and play a sport, that was a real pull for me."
Omer is majoring in economics and taking a minor in business management. He gained a great deal at his summer internship at CGS working with marketing professionals and analysts, including refining his technical and research skills and learning how to act in a professional environment.
While Omer enjoyed his internship and is grateful for the opportunity, it helped him realize that an office job is not the right fit for him and that he had a strong desire to work with disadvantaged youth.
"Thanks to Phil Friedman, I have this great opportunity to learn Torah and take Jewish studies at YU, and to develop my Jewish identity," says Omer. "It is a gift I want to now take and give back to others after I graduate. Perhaps I can inspire young teens who grew up like me to explore a path that will lead them to YU and become more knowledgeable of their Jewish religion."
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