Avi Levitt

Not Just Another Graduation Speech

On Wednesday June 7th, I had the opportunity to share the following words with the approximately 1,300 people who gathered for the Katz Yeshiva High School graduation ceremony.

Tonight we open with a couple of thank yous and I ask that all applause be held to enable the program to move at a faster pace. 

To all of the parents who entrusted your children to our school, thank you for your trust in KYHS. 

To all the grandparents and extended family who are with us tonight, thank you for being the supportive cheerleaders to our 131 exceptional graduates. 

A financial thank you goes to the Board of Directors and to our partners at Teach Florida who responsibly choose, and blaze, pathways to ensure that Jewish education remains affordable. 

Kudos to Shimmie Kaminetsky for orchestrating this beautiful and meaningful send off. 

The last thank you of this speech goes to the Class of 2023 / 5783 for bringing many moments of pride to our school over your four years. You are a remarkable group. And, at least for a little while, you can claim the title of Largest KYHS class ever! I’m excited about your futures and particularly happy that I had the chance to teach each of you during this senior year. 

This speech falls squarely in the category of exhortative charge. Graduates, there is a mission on which we must send you, and there really is no choice other than for you to accept. So pay attention!

The future of the Jewish people rests in your hands, and in the decisions you make over the next five and over the next fifty years. You are now versed well enough in Jewish history to know that every Golden Age comes to an end. 

No matter how educated we were in the Umayyad Calipahte, no matter how close to governmental power we were in Spain, and no matter how enmeshed we were in German culture, Jews have only one home ultimately, and South Florida isn’t that place. 

Now that you have finished the SATs and ACTs, now that your Seminary and Yeshiva decisions are done, and now that you know where you will be for college, can you lift up your heads and envision where the Jewish people will be in fifty years? In a hundred? We need you to ask these questions, and even more importantly we need you to answer these questions. 

For some, Jewish continuity hinges on one of two options.  The first pathway adopts Zionism and Israeli identity as the vehicle that will carry the Jews beyond the 21st century. How many of you will make aliyah? How many of you will direct your tzedaka money to Israeli causes? How many of you will speak of Rav Kook and Rav Kalischer at your Shabbat tables? How many of you will choose careers that will impact on how Israel builds cities? On how Israeli diplomacy will save Jewish lives? On how Israel grapples with its relationships with the Palestinians? It’s all good and well that we worry about flights to NY for Sarachek and where we spend a senior ditch day but are we thinking about this bigger picture?

According to the other pathway, the Jewish future will be defined by how religious we are in our Jewish observances and in our fealty to the Torah. The religious commitments of the past two thousand years are the same commitments that will carry us forward wherever we may choose to live. Research shows that the religious practice of young adults in their twenties correlates with whether a father goes to shul on Sunday morning. Graduates, how many of us have made the commitment to daven on Sunday mornings in the years to come? How many of us have made plans to learn Torah in June after graduation? 

What lives do we plan to lead that will ensure that our choice making will be viewed as coherent and worthy of emulation by our own children?  

Neither of these, the Zionism approach or the shomer Torah umitzvot approach is a silver bullet that guarantees Jewish continuity. One might argue that we will be best served by a dual approach, in which religious Zionism, Torah observance in Israel, is the best recipe for success. And hopefully Katz Yeshiva High School, its staff and its programs, have inspired you to think seriously about this direction.

But the reality is that in the upcoming decades of your adulthood, in all likelihood, you will see only moderate changes in the Orthodox Jewish community relative to the life you have lived for 18 years. If the expectations of Zionism and Torah observance don’t shift much in the next 20 or 30 years, we need something to keep us going. As such, I present a challenge to you. 

Before I do, I want to share a word about urgency. From where I stand, I don’t see a lot of felt urgency in our community.

In 1967, we worried  that the State of Israel would be annihilated and we felt an urgency.

In the 1920s, We worried about the economic future of the Torah community in the USA.  We don’t have these worries today.

In the 1980s, we worried that hundreds of thousands of Jews would be lost to Judaism because they would remain trapped behind the Iron Curtain. While some today are urgently responding to the threat of assimilation, the urgency isn’t being felt quite the same way within the bubbles we inhabit.

On top of the lack of urgency, we are beset with the plague of me-ism that is increasingly symptomatic of the last twenty years. Cell phones are a large part of this malady. 

When we can pick our own music, anesthetize ourselves at will with our choice of games and entertainment, and when we can disappear for hours in TikToks and YouTube videos, our selfish sense of autonomy and self centeredness only grows more powerfully and deeply. Of course we do chesed and of course there are signs of altruistic care, but the dominant culture with its disrespect for authority and decency, makes the individual so very much aware of looking out for number one, and often in a coarse and base manner. The results are that we don’t daven as best we can. We leave debris at lunchroom tables for others to clean up. We see our teachers and rebbeim as service providers like the hotel concierge and not as mentors and role models to be thanked and respected. And sadly we don’t see our choices as being impacted by what Klal Yisrael needs. At a Shabbaton not too long ago you and others at KYHS chose the pathway of money, money, money over becoming the CEO of an OU-like organization. And that was at a point in the adventure when personal wealth was already a resolved issue. 

So we turn to the charge and the challenge of the evening: 

How many of you plan to become Jewish educators?

How many of you will become Rabbis, teachers, perhaps Yoatzot Halacha?

How many of you think about social work and Jewish communal service as your vocational destination? Will any of you work at a Federation and work towards broader Jewish unity?

I’ve asked plenty of questions tonight, but I’ll tell you now with certainty that if you, the graduates of 2023, if you don’t make it different and make changes soon, the urgency that is already coming over the horizon will swamp our Jewish community to grievous effect. While you might not become the teacher or the rebbe, you must create the conditions in the community so that the students who graduate high school in the next ten years and Your children who will graduate in twenty-five years will think differently than we do today about Jewish education and Jewish leadership. 

If current conditions obtain, our community will not have the teachers and the leaders we desperately need. Of course we need wealth to support institutions, but the pendulum has swung so far in that one direction that the absence of idealism, and a willingness to shoulder the leadership from inside the organizations of our Jewish community should be a claxon bell of great urgency. We need your ambition, drive, creativity and leadership and we need you to discover solutions that have escaped us – the adults who are currently leading the Orthodox Jewish community – these past ten, twenty years. 

This is your charge and the future of the Jewish people insists that you not refuse the mission. 

We need Jews who understand the singularity of this moment in Jewish history and who will actualize the relationship with Eretz Yisrael as Sefer Devarim describes it : we are destined to be a nation living in a national homeland following the guidelines of our national blueprint.  We need Jews who understand that commitment to observance is not a matter of casual convenience. Finding personal satisfaction in the required demands of Torah life is like a life-long journey along a river – we need you to stay in the boat and keep paddling. And finally and of vital importance, we need Jewish Americans who can peer over the rim of their own bowls to see how we can reset the larger table. We need you to become the leaders yourselves, or to create community values and expectations that ensure that Jewish leadership will be there when we need them, for as long as Jews live to enjoy this Golden Age in the United States. 

Tonight we celebrate your four years of accomplishments. Tonight the produce of the Greenhouse of the Jewish Future ripens, blossoms, blooms. We expect a lot from you in the years to come, and we have every reason to expect that you will lead successful lives, mission driven lives, lives that will continue to make us proud long after our four years together here at Katz Yeshiva High School. 

I wish you shefa berachot from HKBH and all kinds of hatzlacha in the future. Congratulations on this milestone event! 

About the Author
Avi Levitt has served as an educator for 28 years and as a school leader for 20. He currently lives in Boca Raton with his family, some of whom don't actually enjoy attending school.