Elchanan Poupko

A Letter to the Class of 2021

Illustration:Israeli students at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wear protective face masks as they return to school for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus. May 3, 2020. (Gershon Elinon/Flash90)

To the 8th Grade of once in a lifetime—congratulations!

You made it, and we could not be prouder of you.

As teachers, our primary job is to prepare you for real life—and we did not do it. Life prepared you for real life. More precisely, no one prepared you or us for what you have lived up to over the past two years. While you were in your first half of the 7th grade, the sudden emergence of the coronavirus came fast and furious. Overnight you went from being with your friends and teachers in the classroom to staring at a zoom screen from home. Gym, meeting up with friends, synagogue on Shabbat, and travel, were all canceled overnight. Many of you had Bar and Bat Mitzvahs planned, which were either canceled, delayed, celebrated digitally, or made in a much smaller forum than planned. Dreams, plans, hopes, and arrangements—all vanished overnight. Overnight you had to go from working with pencils and paper to google documents, collaborative web lessons, and quizzes on zoom chat.

No one had prepared you for all of this.

And yet, you shined and rose to the moment.

With a smile, resiliency, and optimism, you turned the tables. Rather than us—the grown-ups in your lives—being the source of all knowledge and inspiration, you became our source of knowledge and inspiration. Looking at a world in so much disarray, we looked to you for hope. We saw the smiles on your faces every day, your checking in on grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family. We saw your ability to learn, celebrate, and connect ever through the most difficult of times and most unique circumstances. We believed in a better future for the world. You taught us that joy and happiness do not need a place, a time, or a venue, that they are with us wherever we are, no matter what.

Like the dove coming to Noah with an olive branch in her mouth, assuring him there is a future to this world, in you we saw a future in the most difficult of times. We looked at you, your resilience, and joy, and optimism in the most difficult of times, and we knew that we would get through this. When teaching moved back to classrooms, it was not easy either. Unlike anything we—your parents and teachers— had experienced in our life, despite being at lower risk, you had to sit through class with masks. You did so because you knew you were protecting others. Not once in this entire time did I hear any of you complain about wearing a mask, nor did I need to ask you to put it on; you did it because it was the right thing. You gave the world a much-needed lesson: caring for others should be natural. Looking out for others is just what we do.

Yet our school is not just any school; it is a Jewish school.

Once again, we did not prepare you for life—life prepared you for life.
The unprecedented eruption of antisemitism in New York and around the world caught us all by surprise. You saw the news, heard of the incidents, and knew that the world has changed. You were suddenly asked to take safety precautions you none of us had to take before. Being Jewish was suddenly not as easy as it had been before. And yet, once again, you taught us a lesson that gave us hope.

You taught us to that to take pride in Judaism is something we should all do, regardless of what is going on in the world around us. You taught us that individuals that take the path of hate and antisemitism are changing themselves—not us. You taught us that our Judaism is something we take pride in regardless of what hateful individuals might say or do. You taught us that standing with our brothers and sisters in Israel is something we will always do, regardless of how outnumbered we might be on social media or elsewhere. You taught us that to follow what we believe in and to do what is right without fanfare or drama; we are just doing what is right.

As you head towards high school, it is clear that you are already prepared for life—life itself prepared you for life. My prayer for you is that you get to catch up on some of the childhood that you had missed, that you have uneventful high school years filled with plain joy, happiness, and progress. My prayer for you is that you take those incredible lessons you have taught the grown-ups in your life during these past two years and carry them with you your entire life. No matter what comes your way, you now know that you are stronger than it. You can handle anything. May the good, joy, and care for others you showed us all so magnificently every single day be with you for the rest of your life. May you continue to teach and inspire the world for the rest of your lives. You can do it because you have done it before.
I am so proud of you all.
Rabbi Poupko




About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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