Kehillah Jewish High School graduation in 2019. (Photo/Alex Johnson)
Kehillah Jewish High School graduation in 2019. (Photo/Alex Johnson)

Graduation 2020: Jewish high schools and day schools planning to celebrate with virtual kvelling

Parents will be able to kvell, as usual, watching their kids graduate in June. But it will be more like television than live theater.

That’s because this year, with schools closed since mid-March, the ceremonies will be experienced at home, through Zoom or live feeds.

Faced with the unprecedented reality of the coronavirus pandemic, Jewish day schools and high schools in the Bay Area have made extraordinary efforts to give their students the send-off and acknowledgment they deserve.

“Because this year is so different, we want to make sure that this graduation is especially meaningful for the students,” said Anne Marie Ullman, director of theater and the delegated commencement stager at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. “While we are saddened that we cannot plan an in-person gathering in June, we are hoping to give the students as tangible and meaningful an experience as possible while staying safely apart.”

JCHS had a kind of trial run last week with the spring theater production, another end-of-year tradition. Rehearsals had just begun in March when everything shut down. They could have canned the production — but no, “the students voted to go on with the show,” said Ullman. They rehearsed on Zoom and made TV backdrops instead of stage sets.

Serendipitously, the selected play was an homage to four classic television shows: “Seinfeld,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Friends.”

“It turned out that the script, coming from the TV medium, was ideally suited for an on-screen production,” Ullman said.

The Zoom performances were recorded and uploaded to the JCHS website. They can be viewed on the school’s YouTube channel.

It was an encouraging experiment. JCHS will improvise again with a June 11 graduation event via Zoom that will include a special surprise: All 33 graduating seniors will receive a box that they are not allowed to open until the ceremony.

JCHS faculty filled each box with gifts that would be uniquely meaningful and useful to each student. Reactions and responses will be visible to all participants.

“In our out-of-the-box thinking, we found we had to include an actual box,” head of school Rabbi Howard Ruben said.

He will also offer some wise words to the graduates.

“What I want to tell them is that the world needs them now more than ever, that this universal trauma we are experiencing needs their compassion and their resilience,” Ruben said.

In Palo Alto, Kehillah Jewish High School will accept the technical assistance of the Oshman Family JCC, where the school traditionally has held its graduation ceremonies, to create a virtual event for the 53 graduates and their families on June 7.

“It will be a live event with many participants feeding in through Zoom,” said Lisa Strauss, director of advancement. “We will make it as close to real and in person as possible.”

Dean of students Nathan Bennett will give his address to the graduates, and a student chorus will perform “Hatikvah,” ”the Star Spangled Banner,” and other songs of their choosing.

“The kids were very much involved in the decision-making,” Strauss said. “We very carefully got to this point based on feedback from the graduating class, to ensure that everyone who wanted to attend could. We feel really good about how it is going to turn out; it will look very professional. Every kid that’s graduating will have time on camera.”

At Jewish K-8 day schools, graduating eighth-graders also will be celebrating commencement virtually. Some administrators have observed that the younger students will not miss the conventional rituals of graduation, since this will be their first such ceremony.

“We are definitely excited to provide a graduation experience for our eighth-grade students. Currently we are planning a siyyum by Zoom on June 2” — a celebration marking the completion of Torah or Talmudic study —”with other creative touches that we are still working on,” reported Jody Passanisi, director of middle school at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. “We made a banner and we will use it as a Zoom background for all the students. We will have their families hand them their diplomas, which may be a really great new tradition to begin.”

Passanisi pointed to one silver lining in a virtual graduation.

“We are able to invite many more people to the ceremony than would fit in our gymnasium, from all parts of the world and the country. Students are excited to be able to invite their family members from Israel, especially since they weren’t able to go on their capstone Israel trip,” she said.

Jewish Community High School of the Bay graduation at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco in 2019. (Photos/Barbara Butkus Photography)
Jewish Community High School of the Bay graduation at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco in 2019. (Photos/Barbara Butkus Photography)

“We also have a bunch of surprises for the graduates,” she added, “but we don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

At Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos, students will graduate the morning of June 3, also over Zoom.

“The graduates are very involved in the format, as well as participating in reflections of their time at Yavneh and looking to the next chapter of their lives,” said middle-school dean Cindy Schlesinger. As a graduation project, the eighth-graders are creating a ceiling mural using a Jewish text that is reflective of their experience at Yavneh. An in-person ceremony or other activity may take place at some point in the future when it is safe, she added.

Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City has a similar plan for its June 3 graduation, with online speeches, surprises and gifts delivered to the students.

Oakland Hebrew Day School is “working with the assumption that our June 17 graduation will be a remote ceremony,” said head of school Tania Schweig.

“We are thinking about different ways to make this feel very special, including using a livestreaming platform (not Zoom) so it feels more formal, creating a slideshow and bringing each student a graduation ‘kit’ with cap and gown to wear, as well as some fun items. We’re also considering an on-site car parade after graduation as a way to come together from a safe distance.”

A few weeks before graduation, the school will also hold a remote siyyum, at which students and their families will share reflections and blessings.

“Our eighth-graders finish the year with a Brit Project that includes family history and reflections on Jewish identity, which will be included in the siyyum,” Schweig said. Other traditional elements of the school year ending, such as the art piece students create for the school, are still in question due to social distancing.

While the present circumstances may result in less pomp at graduation ceremonies, high schoolers in particular seem to be embracing the moment and looking forward — despite the extraordinary disruption to the end of their high school experience.

“Our class of 2020 had already proven themselves to be a creative, optimistic and resilient bunch even before Covid-19,” said Lauren Cook, JCHS dean of college and gap-year advising.

Cook told J. in an email that every senior has been accepted to a four-year college — “Every student that planned to enroll in the fall of 2020 is still staying the course, as of today,” she said on May 20 — and 13 of them are planning to take a gap year, only slightly more than usual.

“It will be interesting in 10 or 15 years to hear them reflect on this moment,” she said. “But as we’re living it, I’m so proud of how they have carried on and supported one another and carried on in the face of a pandemic. They have continued to lead their peers in online school gatherings, showed up for each other as the last college decisions came in remotely, and have fabulous plans for the future that I know they will get to execute eventually. ”

For Ruben, the JCHS students’ show of character comes as no surprise.

“Jewish history is a long case study in resilience and responses to the unimaginable. The Jewish lens they’ve come to see the world through will serve them well,” he said.

“Every class has a unique personality. But this group is particularly strong in the qualities of compassion for others, a passion to succeed and resilience in the face of adversity. In a way they are the perfect class to be graduating into this crisis.”

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.