Jeremy Bruner, a senior at Bentley Upper School in Lafayette, with his dog Snowy. (EDEN BRUNER)
Jeremy Bruner, a senior at Bentley Upper School in Lafayette, with his dog Snowy. (EDEN BRUNER)

No graduation, no prom, no hanging out — tough times for Jewish high school seniors

If there ever was a good time to graduate high school, right now ain’t it.

Graduation ceremonies have been postponed, proms are canceled and seniors who usually start tuning out in the spring instead are “attending” Zoom classes — where their concentration is really running thin.

“It’s a motivation game,” said Orli Hellerstein, a senior at Berkeley High School. “Getting myself to sit down and get on my computer and listen to my teachers … [has] challenged every desire to learn.”

Her school days are now a lot different. She wakes up around 8:30 to 9 a.m., a couple hours later than usual (“which is so nice”). She then practices for the two dance companies she’s a part of, eats lunch, and spends a couple of hours doing homework and attending Zoom classes.

After that, she’s been helping her parents prepare for Passover. The family is loosely associated with Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley.

“If I have time after dinner, I’ll call my friends or read,” she said.

Her school district, Berkeley Unified, announced on March 12 that all of its schools would shut down through the end of April.

However, that’s now old news.

It was announced today, April 7, that schools in six Bay Area counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco — will not re-open for the remainder of the academic year.

Orli Hellerstein
Orli Hellerstein

Hellerstein, who committed to Washington University in St. Louis back in December, said that much of the responsibility to do her schoolwork now falls on her, since her parents are focusing on their own jobs at home.

“You have to be the one to do it,” she said. “It’s all on you.”

But the thing that’s hitting Hellerstein the hardest is that she’s not going to have a proper graduation.

“[It’s] a huge part of your [high school] experience,” she said. “It’s obviously weird. Everything’s weird right now.”

Included in the weirdness, she said, is that some of her friends on social media have received backlash about being sad about missing key milestones. High school seniors shouldn’t be worried about ceremonies, senior trips and dances, some say, but rather should be concerned about and focused on the health of others.

While Hellerstein said she understands that point of view, she added, “There should be more space for seniors in high school and college to mourn the stuff they are giving up in their final semester.”

Jeremy Bruner, a senior at Bentley Upper School, a private college-prep school in Lafayette, said the hardest part of the current situation is not being able to see his friends, especially since everyone is planning to leave for college at the end of summer.

“It’s a downside,” he said.

Bruner, who said he’ll probably attend Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, keeps in touch with his friends over Discord, a chat platform for gamers. He said he’s not totally devastated about his campus being closed — his school is doing remote learning until May 1 (until further notice) — but there’s definitely a little disappointment.

“The feel of senior year,” he said,” the whole finality of it, is tarnished.”

For Zella Lezak, a senior at the Urban School in San Francisco, there are “bigger problems” than missing all the end-of-year pomp and celebrations.

Zella Lezak is a senior at the Urban School in San Francisco. (COURTESY LEZAK)
Zella Lezak is a senior at the Urban School in San Francisco. (COURTESY LEZAK)

“I mean, of course it’s going to suck,” she said. “We won’t have prom or graduation. It seems like a big deal. If these things don’t happen, life will go on. I could spend a lot of time being sad. There’s not a whole lot I can do about it.”

Lezak, who has committed to Kenyon College in Ohio, said she hasn’t received any “concrete details” about whether graduation ceremonies will be rescheduled. The school officially closed on March 12 and is holding virtual classes until April 17, which is the beginning of spring break. The plan for beyond that currently is being re-evaluated.

The hardest thing for Lezak is not seeing her friends during such an important time of high school.

“I really do miss them,” she said. “I was really finding my groove. I was finding my way. I love my family and everything … but I really miss my friends.”

But Lezak said there is a silver lining.

This summer, she’s supposed to work at Camp Newman, a Jewish overnight camp that has been held in Vallejo at the California State University Maritime Academy since the 2017 Tubbs Fire ripped through the camp’s Santa Rosa site.

“I was going to be gone for the whole summer,” she said. “I wasn’t going to spend time with family before going to college.”

But with shelter-in-place orders, she’s “definitely getting some quality time,” she said.

“We know when to give each other space,” she added.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at gabriel@jweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.