The same night that he returned from Colonial Inauguration, senior Gabe Felder remembers going out for ice cream with his dad and rattling off a list of groups and causes he planned to join on campus.
But his dad reminded him he would get the most out of college by focusing his interests and finding his passion.
“It really made me realize I really can’t waste my time at GW. I need to be a part of this school. I need to be a part of this amazing group of people here,” said Felder, who was picked this week to speak during this year’s Commencement ceremony on the National Mall.
That conversation was one of Felder’s last one-on-one moments with his father, who was one of nine people killed in a shooting in August 2010 at the Manchester, Conn. warehouse where he worked.
One month later, Felder moved into Thurston Hall, where – instead of constantly partying with his classmates – he attended services three times a day as part of Orthodox Jewish mourning traditions.
He could have switched his plans and enrolled in a university closer to home. But as his close adviser at GW Hillel said, Felder would never take the easy route.
“In the Jewish culture, we have a word – ‘mensch’ – and that’s him. He just totally has a good heart and a good soul,” assistant director of GW Hillel Adena Kirstein said.
Kirstein said Felder, who is a political communication major, injects his “fireball-like” energy into everything he does – a trait Kirstein believes he will bring to his Commencement speech.
Over his four years at GW, Felder said he took his father’s advice and poured his time into his studies and into groups like the Jewish Student Association, of which served as the president last year.
Known within the School of Media and Public Affairs for his goofy jokes and self-described “weirdo” persona, the five-foot-six senior has also stood out with his kippahs – which are sometimes stamped with a GW logo – and the razor scooter on which he flies around campus. He’s also known to break out a Long Island accent to impersonate his mother.
Felder’s roommate, Jason Edelman, said the pair first bonded over a shared love of comic books while attending a private Jewish high school in New York City before coming to GW.
Edelman said his friend – with his quirky and offbeat humor – strikes a rare balance for a college student: He is able to embrace his faith without preaching.
“I think Gabe’s got a good grasp on what it means to be Jewish. In the secular setting, he wears a kippah and it’s not just a fashion statement. He knows what it means to be in those two worlds,” Edelman said.
Felder will teach special education with Teach for America in New York City while also working toward his master’s in that field.
But before he graduates, Felder said he wants to share his story of finding his place at GW while overcoming his most difficult moments. He said he will share the advice his father gave him, which he said pushed him to become a “go-getter” in all parts of his life.
When he addresses the roughly 20,000-person crowd on the National Mall next month, Felder said he won’t let himself be intimidated. As usual, he plans to keep the mood light.
Speaking alongside renowned restaurateur José Andrés, Felder said he is already planning to ask the world-famous chef to open a kosher restaurant. He may even ask to take a selfie with him on stage.
“Hopefully everyone will get something out of my speech, even if it’s only just a smile at the end,” Felder said.
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Felder is the current president of the Jewish Student Association. He served as president last year. We regret this error.