April 18, 2024
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2020 Graduations Celebrate Resilience

School administration and faculty will remember 2020 as the year they became students again. They learned an entirely new way of delivering lessons despite years of experience and planning a graduation unlike any other. Schools have been rising to the challenge with creative approaches that let advancing eighth graders and graduating seniors celebrate this milestone in ways they never could have imagined.

A particularly ambitious graduation ceremony was pulled off by Yeshivat Noam in Paramus. By now, most Jewish Link readers have seen and read about the traveling 13-foot-high, 20-foot-long graduation float that stopped at each eighth grader’s home, where Rabbi Chaim Hagler, head of school, made a speech and welcomed the graduate onto the stage for a presentation, while being socially distanced, of course. The student was then handed a brief speech to read—and despite their surprise, they all aced the task—which was followed by a photo op in front of the float with a cardboard likeness of Rabbi Hagler. Parents kvelled and neighbors cheered.

Three parent committees, who were motivated to act by Rabbi Hagler’s exhortation to do something really special for the students, put the event together.

Noam parent Chanan Vogel, whose wife Amy Vogel is the director of development at Noam, said, “I felt we needed to do something fun, exciting and personal. It needed to have a wow factor. Rabbi Hagler used ‘wow factor’ a lot in trying to describe this event and what he wanted to accomplish.” Vogel, who planned the program, said they went through a few great ideas, and decided a graduation with a quick ceremony at each child’s home, where they could be the center of attention, would be meaningful and memorable.

The most challenging part was the logistical complexity of planning the route, which was handled by parent volunteer Ari Wartelsky. He had to figure out how long each element of the plan would take and the driving time between homes. He checked the terrain in advance to make sure the float wouldn’t get stuck on an inescapable dead end somewhere.

For Vogel, the most fulfilling part of the project was seeing each student read the 40-second speech he wrote. It was written and delivered as though each child was his or her class valedictorian, Vogel said,

“It created this all-star moment,” Vogel said. “They were celebrated for the work they’ve done, in front of people who mean the most to them.”

Graduation for the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) in Livingston took place on June 10. The JKHA middle school advancement program will take place on June 16 in a similar format. Planning for the ceremonies began after Pesach.

The RKYHS drive-in graduation took place with a stage and LED screens, and was broadcast on an FM radio station commissioned for the event. Assistant Principal Gary Berger said multiple cameras and a private Zoom account brought the ceremony live to families around the world. Students were called from their family cars to the stage, with four socially distanced administrators conferring diplomas. A parade of the families’ decorated cars followed.

Danielle Goldstein, assistant principal of the JKHA middle school, said the students would receive gift bags, delivered by administration and faculty the day before their advancement, containing their gown, yearbook, awards, car decorations and “movie theater snacks for their drive-in program.” The program was similar to its high school counterpart. After dark, a video was shown on outdoor screens.

“We were very confident and determined to create an in-person advancement and graduation,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school. “The students need closure and need to be with the people they have gone to school with for so many years. We have taken every mitigating circumstance into consideration to have some form of in person graduation.”

The drive-in graduation for the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison took place June 8 at the Brunswick Square Mall. Each graduate was allowed two cars, which were numbered (1A, 1B) and had a designated parking spot. Next to each car A, where the graduate sat, was a table with the student’s diploma, which he or she could grab by rolling down the car window. Audio for the event was available on FM radio and the event was streamed live on Facebook.

When Rabbi Saul Zucker, head of school at Ben Porat Yosef (BPY), held a Zoom meeting with faculty and parents to plan graduation, he emphasized that although their goal was to have an event that was memorable, celebratory and joyous, it was of paramount importance that safety came first.

With New Jersey health department guidelines in mind, BPY is having a drive-in graduation on June 16, where students will come dressed in cap and gown and watch the program on a large rented screen with audio through car FM radio. The pre-recorded part of the program will include faculty recollections of each student, two student speakers and speeches by Rabbi Zucker, the school president. Gift bags will be delivered to the trunk of each car with a yearbook, BPY swag, celebratory food items and the student’s diploma. Each student will be called by name and will stand next to the car for cheers.

“This is our way of getting everyone together, face to face,” said Rabbi Zucker.

Graduation 2020 is bringing together two schools, Yavneh Academy in Paramus and The Moriah School in Englewood, who will share resources and hold graduation on the same day, June 14, but at different times.

“We felt having it when school ended was important to give closure,” said Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, principal and head of school at Yavneh. “If the restrictions are lifted, we’ll try to do a student-only event another time.”

The drive-in graduation will be in a large parking lot with a largely pre-recorded program, which students will work on, that will be shown on a big screen with car audio. Rabbi Knapp said it will begin with students virtually walking down the aisle, with “some funny, creative clips that show their personalities.” There will be a siyum for the grade, and one boy and one girl will give presentations.

Rabbi Daniel Alter, head of school at Moriah, wrote in an email: “Our students grow up together, and we have seen with our alumni that they remain friends for the rest of their lives so, for us, doing our graduation with all the kids together as a graduating class was a prerequisite.”

When the restrictions in New Jersey started to loosen this month, Rabbi Alter reached out to the Yavneh administration—they speak frequently—who was happy to let Moriah use the facilities they had already arranged.

“Yavneh Academy was scheduled to do an outdoor event similar to what we had envisioned,” said Rabbi Alter. “They offered to collaborate with us and let us join in on their plan. It was very kind of them. This was a great example of community collaboration, cost saving and thinking out of the box.”

Rabbi Zucker surmised that 2020 graduates will tell their grandchildren how they lived through the year of COVID-19.

“But it would be sad if graduates, and any of us, define ourselves by the tragic circumstances of this pandemic,” he said. “We should define ourselves by how, in a strong way, and a happy way and a supportive way, we all came together and we provided each other with support and strength and inspiration and kindness. That’s something to really share with everyone, not that ‘I was stuck inside a house.’ We came together as a family and as a community to really support and inspire each other, and that’s something to be proud of.”

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