Diplomas from a Distance

Eliana Albert at Beth Tfiloh Graduation Ceremony. Photo by Jesse Berman.

With school facilities shuttered, college dorms empty, and classrooms attempting to function in the online space, the coronavirus pandemic has hit youth hard. And now, with summer fast approaching, schools and synagogues held creative ceremonies to try to keep coronavirus from taking one more thing: high school graduation.

At Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, students and families participated in an outdoor graduation ceremony on June 7.

In the parking lot of the school, students pulled up in their cars one at a time to be handed their yearbooks at the ceremony, though not their diplomas, as those are being saved for a hoped-for, in-person graduation later in the year, said Zipora Schorr, director of education.

“Our goal is to celebrate our kids,” Schorr said. “We know there have been tragedies, with people getting sick and losing loved ones. That said, we know that our seniors were also very disappointed to lose their trip to Israel, to lose their summer internships, to not go in person to college in the fall, and to not have a traditional graduation.”

Originally, Beth Tfiloh had been considering an online graduation for June 7, but the class of 82 graduating seniors was not in favor of the idea, Schorr said.

The school sent out a survey asking them if they preferred a virtual graduation, a potential in-person graduation in August, or something that combined both, and the students favored the combination.

“We did whatever we possibly could to make sure they know they are loved and celebrated at Beth Tfiloh,” Schorr said.

Eden Brody at Beth Tfiloh graduation ceremony. Photo by Jesse Berman.

Two days earlier, Beth El Congregation held a virtual graduation ceremony on June 5. Titled “Graduate Together: A Friday Night Commencement Experience,” it attempted to apply the template of a graduation ceremony to an online environment.

According to Cantor Melanie Blatt in an interview prior to the event, parents blessed their graduates during the ceremony, and then they had a virtual stage walk.

Blatt explained that the virtual stage walk would involve the student’s name appearing on the screen, potentially along with a photo or photos of the student and congratulatory messages from friends and family.

Blatt spoke about how it was Beth El’s hope to give “this community an opportunity to gather and see who each other are. And then, hopefully, that will spark some continued conversations and bonding with those students, their families.”

As the cantor of Beth El, Blatt noted that she personally had found similarities between performing in person in front of an audience and doing so over Zoom, and she hoped that the virtual ceremony could, on some level, give students what they would have had at a more traditional graduation.

“Our hope is that we’ll be able to do whatever we can and actually enhance the experience through that interactive element for the graduate to have their moment in the spotlight, just like they would have if they were walking across the stage at commencement,” Blatt said.

Similarly, Chizuk Amuno Congregation had its own virtual graduations: May 5 for its Achshav program, and May 7 for the Netivon program, according to Rabbi Stuart Seltzer, their director of congregational education.

Matan Schiller at Beth Tfiloh graduation ceremony. Photo by Jesse Berman.

According to Seltzer, Achshav students study “about leadership through the lens of the heroes of Israel. And they take a trip to Israel during their 10th grade year. And many of them continue after the 10th grade.”

Meanwhile, Netivon is a program for graduates of Krieger Schechter Day School who did not enroll in a Jewish high school program but wish to continue their Jewish education, according to Pikesville resident Ellie Hoch, who graduated from the program last month.

Another recent Netivon graduate, Sam Braman, said the program often revolved around “being a Jew in today’s world as far as discussing current events, Israel, what it means to be a Jew going off into the world, going off to college campuses where … people might not be as accommodating to pro-Israel viewpoints.”

In order to get the graduates excited for their Zoom ceremonies, students were sent “a reception in a box,” Seltzer said, which included food and beverage mugs.

“These two classes were a very close-knit class, the Achshav kids and the Netivon kids. The friendships were really lifelong friendships,” Seltzer said. “We gave them mugs with the word ‘Friends’ on it from the sitcom.”

The closing remarks were delivered by Rabbi Deborah Wechsler. Seltzer noted that, in her statements, Wechsler spoke about how Jewish education begins in the home.

As such, Seltzer felt the online ceremony was an excellent way to celebrate both the students’ first and second home, “where they received their Jewish education from teachers and rabbis.”

While he would have liked an in-person ceremony, Braman noted he enjoyed the sort of intimacy that the online ceremony provided.

“We would go on trips, and we’ve known these people for a very long time,” Braman said. “It was reflected in everyone’s speeches, and everyone’s ending.”

For her part, Hoch said that, though her older sister’s graduation had been very different, her own was still meaningful.

“We got the same things out of it,” she said. “Maybe even more. We were all connected by the fact that we were separated. And we all still wanted to be there and celebrate with each other, because we have been there and committed for four years, and had known each other for many, many more years before that.

“So, it was at first difficult to come to terms with the fact that we weren’t gonna be able to see each other one last time and say goodbye. But it all worked out because we really did get a full experience and full ceremony, and we got to do it in the comfort of our own home.”

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