Michail Kitsos is the first student to travel all the way from Greece to take classes at Gratz College's Melrose Park campus.
He's also the first Greek Orthodox Christian to become valedictorian.
And the 32-year-old is the first graduate whom Gratz administrators immediately hired to create a brand new certificate program, in Jewish-Christian Studies.
On Sunday, the college will recognize Kitsos and 294 fellow graduates at commencement ceremonies. Halfway across the world, Kitsos' 72-year-old mother will lean in to her computer to watch as her son receives his master's degree in Jewish Studies with a specialization in rabbinics.
Unlike Kitsos, the vast majority — 252 to be exact — will receive their master's degrees in education, a secular program started in the late '90s primarily for existing school teachers. That, along with other new general market programs, has helped fund the Judaic initiatives the college was founded to serve in 1895.
The other 43 studied Jewish subjects: 18 earned master's degrees; one a bachelor's degree and others, certificates in topics such as Jewish Early Childhood Education, Holocaust Studies and Jewish Non-Profit Leadership, administrators said.
So how did a devout Christian from Greece end up among such a small, niche group of rabbinics students at a Jewish college in Philadelphia? Curiosity, patience and the Internet, according to Kitsos.
Ever since he first learned biblical Hebrew as part of his undergraduate course work in Christian Theology in Greece, "I felt an attraction to Judaism and to the texts," said Kitsos.
The National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, however, didn't have a Jewish studies department. Furthermore, Kitsos said, "it was very, very odd, in the negative sense, that somebody who is Orthodox Christian would want to study Judaism."
So he went on to graduate studies in the next closest thing: biblical archaeology, which gave him the opportunity to write a thesis on the liturgical uses of the menorah.
Even after that, Kitsos said, he had yet to find a professor who could help him further his interest in Jewish studies. Lacking guidance, he searched the Internet for "Jewish studies" and a link to Gratz popped up.
He was accepted in 2007, but deferred because of the cost. He resisted suggestions to try taking the courses online.
"It would shape my identity to come to the U.S., to strive for what I really love and to make sacrifices," Kitsos explained.
In the meantime, he went back for three more years of school in Athens, obtaining a certificate in palaeography, the study of reading ancient texts. Finally, his older sister gave him money from an acting gig to send him on his way to Philadelphia.
He arrived in January 2010 with little more than his drive to learn.
"It was a promise I made to myself that I want to be an excellent student to prove my sincerity of my intentions — that is, that I love Judaism and I want to become a Jewish scholar," Kitsos said.
"The only thing here was to study hard day and night. I had no friends here, and I still have no friends," he said, laughing.
From the "closet" he rents in Horsham, he takes public transportation to get to campus or the Annunciation/Evangelismos Greek Orthodox Church in Elkins Park. He doesn't have a cell phone, so he calls his mother four times a day through the Internet. Ironically, he said, she refers to the Jewish staff at Gratz as "true Christians" because of the kindness they have shown her son.
What's not to like about a student who "wants to know a subject from beginning to end?" asked his adviser, Ruth Sandberg."
"He is probably one of the most dedicated scholars I've ever encountered," the rabbinics professor said.
It's also been wonderful to have a student with such extensive credentials in Christian theology and ancient texts in class, Sandberg added. "He's able to bridge both traditions in a way that I'm not capable of doing."
So impressed by Kitsos' ability to explain the complexities of Christian dogma, last year Sandberg hired him as an assistant. This past semester, they co-taught an adult education class on Jewish and Christian theology. The students were so "absolutely enthralled and enchanted with him," that they signed a petition to have the class continued in the fall, Sandberg said.
She's also been helping Kitsos develop a certificate program in Jewish-Christian Studies, which Gratz's board of directors officially approved just this spring. After graduation, Kitsos will become the full-time assistant director, still working under Sandberg.
He's already planning a capstone educational trip to Greece and Israel next spring, timed to coincide with the Christian Passover celebration in Greece and Lag B'Omer in Israel.
Despite his fascination with Judaism, Kitsos said he's never considered converting.
"Exactly because I am very well-versed in my Orthodox Christian faith, that's why I truly love Judaism because I see Judaism as the reason that my religion exists."
Plus, he continued, "my word will have gravity if I retain my Orthodox Christian identity and yet speak in favor of what Judaism gave us, what we owe to Judaism. No one will suspect me of defending Judaism because I am one of the Jews."
While working at Gratz, Kitsos said he also plans to investigate doctoral programs in Jewish studies at other East Coast universities. It would be an honor to continue teaching and studying in a meritocracy, he said, especially considering Greece's current financial and sociological instability.
Ultimately, though, he dreams of going back home to start a department of Jewish studies at the University of Athens.
"Jewish monotheism and Greek philosophy are the two pillars of Western civilization," Kitsos said. "I want to bring Jerusalem and Athens together in the place where Christianity was born and where the great ideas of philosophy, of science, of democracy were born."