Anne Marie Ullman of Jewish Community High School of the Bay can’t talk about graduation. The theater teacher is planning it, but she has to keep mum. That’s because a lot of it is a surprise.
“We’re trying to make the event as special as we can,” she explained. “And extremely personalized.”
While 2020 was a year of graduation-by-Zoom, with schools striving to make a virtual departure meaningful for students, this year the challenge is different. After a school year marked by remote learning and cohorts and masks, Jewish high schools and middle schools across the Bay Area are working within Covid restrictions to make graduation as meaningful as possible for seniors and graduating eighth-graders.
At JCHS in San Francisco, that means facing up to the disruption caused by school shutdowns and hybrid learning, Ullman said.
“We are honoring how different the year has been for everyone,” she said.
JCHS has an in-person graduation planned, with 47 kids set to gather in the school’s courtyard; two students will attend virtually. Immediate households of seniors can come, but not grandma from out of state.
Combining in-person and online ceremonies in a meaningful way is a challenge — emotionally, organizationally and technically — that requires a lot of planning and, in the case of JCHS, includes arranging for four videographers.
While the details are a surprise, Ullman said that the graduation won’t try to replicate what it’s been in previous years. In fact, she said, head of school Rabbi Howard Ruben told her to start from scratch.
“Rethink it!” she said he told her. “The most important thing is that it’s meaningful, and the kids feel honored.”
Although she couldn’t get into specifics, she did say that the ceremony will focus on the kids’ connection to the school campus itself, something that has been emphasized for students over the last 14 months.
“The kids learned this year the value of connection to physical space and each other,” Ullman said. “Our graduation is really designed to honor that.”
Senior Rachael Allis Hymowitz is sure graduation will be fun. “From the whispers I’ve heard, I think it’s going to be exciting,” she said.
While Hymowitz and her fellow students aren’t part of planning graduation, they have their own task to complete — writing and giving the senior speech, a collaborative task that will take elements of a number of individual speeches to create one thematic whole.
“A lot of people talked about both what we missed out on, losing a year and a half, but also what we gained,” Hymowitz said.
The “misses” were obvious, she said, but the gains weren’t; seniors talked about becoming closer over the year. “We’re a more cohesive grade because we went through this traumatic thing together,” she said.
At Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, the wrench that Covid threw into the school year meant that this year’s seniors were a little less excited about end-of-school rituals, according to marketing director Deena Riddle. That is, until they saw the graduation yard signs.
“When those came in, you started to see that excitement,” she said. “’Oh, we have yard signs?!’”
Kehillah, too, had a virtual graduation last spring, which planners tried to make as meaningful as possible. Riddle said it was both “last minute and shockingly wonderful.” But this year, Kehillah is returning to an in-person ceremony as much as possible, getting help from the Oshman Family JCC across the street to host graduation outside.
“Graduation will be in person this year, which we’re pretty excited to offer our kids,” she said. “They’ve been through a lot.”
The audience — again, only immediate household members — will be spread out, but there will be big screens to showcase the smiles of the 40 kids graduating in person. Two will go attend the ceremony virtually, but the whole event will be livestreamed for family members and friends who can’t attend.
The idea, Riddle said, is to make it “as fun and festive and normal as possible.”
Staff and faculty hope it’ll “help with putting a happy close on their final chapter of high school,” Riddle said. They also put together an in-person prom, held outside last weekend.
We are honoring how different the year has been for everyone
Riddle, reached while still planning the event, said they’d be focusing on music and games instead of, say, slow-dancing. While not a traditional prom, its intent was to give the kids a chance to dress up and feel special.
“These are fun ways to close what has been a unique year,” Riddle said.
Finding comfort in rituals and tradition is more crucial now than ever, said Cindy Schlesinger, head of Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos. She’s focusing on making the experience of graduating for her class of eighth-graders feel as much a part of Yavneh tradition as ever, even if pandemic safety rules mean some things have to change.
“I think it’s even more important to hold onto something,” she said, “and not have one more thing that’s different.”
But in order to make that work, graduation for outgoing eighth-graders had to be split up this year.
“What we’re doing is two ceremonies,” Schlesinger said. “Graduation is, of course, about our graduates and their families, but it’s also about them being showcased and seen by other students.”
There will be an outdoor ceremony for the graduating students’ families, and there also will be a schoolwide virtual event. “Our kindergarteners to our seventh-graders will be watching on Zoom from their classrooms or homes,” she said.
And the school will hold onto some of its most beloved rituals, such as graduates receiving a new kippah as they enter a new stage of their lives (which is sort of a companion ritual to kindergartners receiving a kippah from an eighth-grade buddy when they begin school).
For the students at Brandeis Marin in San Rafael, the main focus has been on making this year’s graduation for eighth-graders an in-person event of some kind, especially after a year of missed b’nai mitzvahs.
“Last year we had a complete Zoom graduation,” explained Bev Boorman, director of operations and one of the ceremony planners. While there was a car parade, gift boxes and a photographer who went house to house, “still you miss the intimacy of it all,” she said.
Outgoing eighth-grader Isabelle Stavsky agreed.
“I felt pretty sad for the graduating class last year,” she said. “Some of them spent nine years at Brandeis and the end was over a Zoom screen.”
This year, like other schools, the graduation ceremony will be in person but limited, with guests at tables in an outside space.
“It’s going to look kind of like dinner theater, in my mind,” Boorman said. “Without the dinner.”
It’ll be supplemented with a Zoom breakfast just for families leaving the school for good (some graduating eighth-graders have younger siblings at Brandeis Marin).
Eighth-graders such as Stavsky and Vivi Chador, the co-president of the student council, have been involved in planning the graduation.
“We actually had a lot of voice in it,” Chador said. She said that the two eighth-graders canvassed their fellow students for ideas and opinions. The main desire was for an in-person ceremony, but most kids also wanted to keep the porch photo sessions that were instituted last year.
The fact that the students are part of the planning process is meaningful, Boorman said.
“I think that’s pretty powerful,” she said. “Not only have they found their voices, they want to share their voices.”
Brandeis Marin, like the other Jewish day schools in the Bay Area, is marking not just the end of another school year, but also the growth of their students from children to teenagers and young adults. That’s true every year, but it’s become more poignant in a time that has been more disruptive than anyone could have conceived of on graduation day in 2019.
“We’re doing everything in our power to make them feel they haven’t lost anything,” Boorman said.
Or, as Ullman of JCHS put it, this year’s ceremony is both a response to the past year and a loving send-off that celebrates “the end of a journey, and the beginning of a new journey.”