in spotlight for
As a high school student in Cincinnati, Evan Gildenblatt never envisioned he would share a stage with two of history’s most famous figures.
But just a few years later, that’s exactly what the Kent State University senior has done.
In September 2012, he met President Barack Obama. On April 11, he met Elie Wiesel, the noted Holocaust survivor. And if that wasn’t enough, he was a featured speaker at both events.
“I don’t think I could have envisioned the role that I would have had in these pivotal events in the university history,” said Gildenblatt, who was the recipient of Hillel’s International Philip H. and Susan Rudd Cohen Exemplar of Excellence Award in 2012. “With that being said, I’ve always been somebody who wants to be a game-changer, a peacemaker, somebody who wants to have a positive impact on the world. So while I may not have been able to envision this specifically, I think this is a dream come true.”
Gildenblatt, who spent a year studying and volunteering in Israel and developed an interest in conflict management, was selected to offer remarks before both Nobel Laureates’ speaking engagements on the Kent State campus.
“It’s an honor the likes of which I have rarely experienced in my life,” said the bearded 21-year-old. “I think part of it is I’m the president of the student body. I enjoy public speaking and many people on the campus by now have heard me deliver a speech in some capacity or another. I think it was a combination of all of that and a little bit of luck.”
So what was it like to meet Obama and Wiesel within seven months of each other?
“That was again – and I’m going to borrow the word that I used for this – truly remarkable,” said Gildenblatt. “It was something that is unparalleled. I have been privileged to see a lot in my life, to meet a lot of dignitaries, and hear a lot of great, great orators who perform great speeches. President Obama and Elie Wiesel, these are men who are on a level of their own. They completely elevate the playing field, and I think their Nobel Prizes are indicative of that.
“We have some great orators of our time … two who I would think of would be Dr. (Martin Luther) King and Abraham Joshua Heschel, two pioneers in the civil rights movement who were able to inspire with their words. You know, I think people like that have something very special and not all of us are privileged enough to have, but when they share their gift with the world, I truly hope that everyone will listen.”
Gildenblatt, wearing his trademark bow tie, was in the first row among 5,100 at the Kent State University Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center, seated with Chaya Kessler, director of the Jewish studies department, and university President Lester Lefton, who is also Jewish. Wiesel’s talk was expected to last 60 minutes, but he spoke for about 75 minutes. Then he briefly attended a reception in the second-floor ballroom of the adjacent student center.
“Obviously, as a Jewish American, I was familiar with his work, had read his books and really looked up to him as an icon, as a role model in the community,” Gildenblatt said. “This has been phenomenal. There have been so many people at the university who have put their blood, sweat and tears into making this a success. They really deserve a great deal of credit.”
In a pre-event ceremony in the MAC Center lobby, Gildenblatt had an opportunity to meet Wiesel.
“The interesting thing that really stuck with me was how powerful his handshake was and it’s not just a physical thing,” he said. “He had a very powerful handshake physically, but I think the weight of what he has seen goes with every handshake and he is such a genuine, caring, humanitarian. And really his wisdom is unsurpassed.
“I’m a student of conflict management and I mentioned how much of an inspiration he was to me, and he said how much of a pleasure it was to be back here (at Kent State), 24 years to the day since his last appearance. And I think this really means a lot to him on this day to be here speaking with this audience.
“I told him how much of an inspiration he is. It’s funny enough, I was speaking with my mother today and she said, ‘Oh, in 2005, I was in Auschwitz for the 60th anniversary of the liberation and he meant so much, the fact that he was there with all of us. You know the thousands of people there, but that he managed to touch each of our lives so profoundly.’
“And that’s something I noticed tonight, that professor Wiesel was able to do. There were over 5,000 people in attendance tonight. I would venture to guess that he touched every one profoundly in one way or another, had an effect on somebody’s lives, everybody’s lives. And that’s really just remarkable to me, that he has the ability to do that.”
While many struggled to hear Wiesel’s soft-spoken message, Gildenblatt echoed it instead.
“Really, what I get and I hope others will get is that you can’t lose hope,” he said. “It’s what keeps us going. You have to be able to smile, you have to be able to laugh, and this is a message that’s true for Jews and non-Jews. Everybody around the world, we see there are still atrocities committed in the name of G-d, in the name of money, or in no name at all. I think the message he brought with him tonight was so profoundly important in providing hope for the new generation.
“I want to thank everyone. Everyone who was involved in the process of bringing professor Wiesel has my utmost gratitude, and they’ve really made an indelible impact on my life and I hope the lives of my peers.”