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Okay Corona, we will just bring graduation home

I couldn't let my son depart elementary school with no more than a 'Leave Meeting' click -- so I helped produce a send-off for 86 8th graders that none of us will ever forget

Three NJ dads and one exceptional Head of School say, ‘No, a Zoom graduation is not going to be good enough for our kids.’

Have you ever attended 85 s’machot, 85 joyous occasions, in two days? I just did. Perhaps this is a world record, but I don’t think Guinness tracks these things.

I am a proud father of current (and former) students of Yeshivat Noam, an elementary and middle school in Paramus, NJ. Like many around the world, we have spent the last several months in quarantine, and as became necessary when the lockdown began, the school leaped into action to continue school online using the Zoom video platform as the virtual classroom.

My son Abie and his classmates are in Yeshivat Noam’s eighth grade. They are finishing their year as graduates of middle school, and they will part ways from the halls that most of them have inhabited since they were 4 years old. My heart breaks for him and every single graduate in 2020 – whether from middle school, high school or college (and I have a child in each of those spots) – because what should have been one of the great years of their academic careers was taken over by COVID-19 and unalterably changed forever.

Throughout the heart of the quarantine, I always wondered what would things look like “on the other side” when this is all over? I more pressingly wondered, “when” will we be on the other side? One thing became apparent: the school year was going to finish out online, and then it occurred to me, so would all the pomp and circumstance that comes along with graduation and the school year-end celebrations. And my heart broke for the kids all over again.

To its credit, in early May, the school called a meeting of eighth-grade parents – on Zoom of course – and Rabbi Chaim Hagler, its Head of School, candidly said that with all the ever-evolving public health guidance in New Jersey, the school’s administration was just not sure what we are going to be able to do for the graduates beyond a Zoom ceremony. That last thought was intolerable to me and to a couple of my good friends who are also dads of students in the same eighth grade. Nachum Segal of JM in the AM later said it best: we couldn’t bear the thought that the last impression of our children’s 10 years at Yeshivat Noam was going to be clicking the button: “Leave Meeting.” So we jumped into action.

I started presenting ideas to the school, as did my dear friends who I now affectionately call the other two of the “Three Caballeros.” (They actually don’t know that I call them that, so this is my big reveal.) Chanan Vogel and Ari Wartelsky are two of the most capable and creative thinkers and doers that I have ever known, and both are also among the greatest of my personal “super dad” role models. We were each separately conjuring up different ideas in our heads: swoop Rabbi Hagler in on a helicopter? Maybe too dangerous. Drive-in graduations? Perhaps, but is there more we can push ourselves? Can we involve a shark? Open question. One thing we knew for sure: there had to be lawn signs … because nothing of any moment can happen in 2020 in North America without a lawn sign.

Rabbi Hagler convened the three of us on (what else) a Zoom call. He probably knew a little what he was getting into with the Three Caballeros when the first thing he said to us was, “Guys, whatever you have in mind, it has to be legal.” Well, there went Idea Number 1. (I’m joking! Really I am. Really.) The next thing he said was that the plan needs to be a kiddush Hash-m and show the school in an exemplary light. In highlighting these things for us, he was kidding (I think) because he knew that we already, of course, would be taking those things into account, as well as the health and safety of everyone involved. But the last thing he asked – which was the goal for all of us – was to make each graduate feel like they were leaving Yeshivat Noam on top of the world. We said, “We got it, Rabbi Hagler,” and off we went to the graduation planning lab.

Putting Plans In Motion

In one of our subsequent 237 meetings, Chanan said, “Hey, what about a graduation float? We’ll go to each student’s house and keep everything socially distant because the graduate would just then be with his or her family.” Before we could even pause to consider it, Chanan found Rob DeVito of Bond Parade Floats (shout-out to Rob and team) who said, sure they could help us with a floating graduation. Parent sponsors stepped up to the plate, and we were off to the races, um, the parade route.

Many questions started coming up: the class has 80+ students, how much time would it take to go to 80 locations? (two days, it turns out, with the out-of-town students coming to get their own personal graduations in front of the empty school building). Would Rabbi Hagler be able to do this for two straight days? (Yes, all he said he needed was two Diet Cokes, and he was good to go.) Would we be able to do this for two days straight? (Yes, it turns out again, if Rabbi Hagler could do it, well, then we could do it.) Socially-distanced pictures? (Let’s make a cutout of the Head of School for the photo op). Restroom breaks on the float? (Nah). How will we keep it fresh for each student over two days? (Lots of Diet Coke and also asking each family to please not post anything on social media until the last students had their turn). And on and on.

Keeping everyone safe was our first priority. Making every graduate and family feel special was our next obligation. And making sure that everyone just had fun was our third. We knew this was going to be great, but, honestly, the reaction of the community and later the world was a bit surprising to each of us.

On the Float

Showtime. The first graduates started pulling up with their families to the school. After the first or second mini-ceremony, we began seeing moms and dads wiping away tears from under their sunglasses and cheering at the top of their lungs for their precious son or daughter who was taking their next important step in life. At one point, the two other Caballeros and I looked at each other and gave ourselves contactless elbow bumps because we realized, in that moment, that we were on to something special.

Our idea was simple in theory: keep mostly everything a secret ahead of time. Let the graduates think that they will be visited by school officials to receive a diploma and be ready to take a pic or two in your cap and gown and … ho, hum, likely receive a lawn sign on your front yard. The graduate’s family was told to wait outside. The graduate was asked to remain indoors so the student could open the door and experience the full “wow factor” in a big reveal as the float pulled up with music blaring and energy popping.

Ms. Aliza Chanales, the Middle School’s Principal of General Studies, walked up to every front door (or in the case of the out-of-town ceremonies to each car door) to invite the graduate out to march to the classic graduation Pomp and Circumstance. (I never understood why they call that song “circumstance”? “Pomp” I get, but circumstance?)

When the student arrived at the single chair that was set up at the sidewalk, Rabbi Hagler proceeded to make individualized speeches to each of them. He then invited the student to come up to the float where a podium was waiting and where the graduate would then present a four-paragraph speech that we wrote for them ahead of time that stressed the themes of perseverance and gratitude. The student would come off the float and have their “diploma” (not their actual diploma, a spoof created by Ari) that would be handed to them by the “Noam Knight” – the school mascot dressed in PPE (personal protective equipment, a grateful nod to the healthcare workers in the time of Corona) and, after some banter and shtick between me and Rabbi Hagler, a picture would be snapped of the graduate together with a cardboard cutout of the Head of School. During the hoopla, Rabbi Yitz Motechin, the Middle School’s Principal of Judaic Studies, secretly planted near the house – you guessed it – the graduate’s own unique 2020 lawn sign. Families would dance and sing afterward, and, yes, many wiped away tears from under their sunglasses.

Reflections on 85 S’machot

It is not often that one has the opportunity to be a part of 85 s’machot over two days. I know people who have hopped from a wedding to a bar mitzvah in one day, perhaps, but 85? So, I feel particularly blessed to have shared such a special, personal moment with the families of 84 other graduates and to have been able to sit back for one of them – my son’s – and now reflect on this school, its children, and this incredible experience.

True, the formula was technically the same for each of the 85 graduations. (There are even three sets of twins in the class, and the template remained mostly constant.) But, and when I tell people this, they don’t seem to believe me, each and every graduation from 1 to 85 was entirely different one from the other. Every graduation had a different energy. Some were raucous and pumped up, and others were quieter and more reflective. Some ceremonies had many neighbors and “random people on the street” standing socially distantly around the action, and others saw a few family members beaming with pride and nachat. At some, synagogue rabbis who live on the same block as the graduates stopped by and, as in the case of Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Cong. Beth Aaron, one even gave an impromptu bracha to his nearby neighbors from the float.

We were amazed that every single child read from the speech prepared for them. Not one – no matter how seemingly shy or quiet or loud and effusive – refused the opportunity. In fact, one student didn’t even see the prepared lines and went totally off-script with her own off-the-cuff remarks that knocked us all off our feet. Some kids delivered it hesitantly, others plowed through it to get to the end as quickly as they could. Some stumbled on the words, and others were as articulate as Churchill. Some cried and others laughed. And, over and over again, I stood there dumbfounded at just how amazing these kids are. Day after day, my son Abie always surprises me with delight, and, on those two days, his classmates surprised me repeatedly as well. They showed their tenacity and their joy, and, in their fragile adolescent way, they also demonstrated how they understood the import of this moment, of being the entirely unique Class of 2020 with a shared experience like no other year before them. And they took the moment to reflect on that and share it with their family, school, and neighborhood. Yes, even I wiped away tears … more than once over those two days.

I also stood there from my vantage point watching Rabbi Chaim Hagler give 85 different speeches to 85 different students. We had a script for everything except for this segment in the program. Those 85 speeches came from his heart, in the moment – no notes – and every single time, he said precisely what each graduate individually needed to hear. For some students, it was a personal reflection on who they are. For some, it was words of encouragement and chizuk for who they are yet to be. For all, it was deeply personal and entirely built on years and years of knowing each and every child as if they were his own. I have seen Rabbi Hagler do this at every bar and bat mitzvah of every Yeshivat Noam student, but those were one at a time. To have witnessed such intimate mini-bar/bat mitzvah speeches 85 times in a row over two days is something I will not soon forget. I don’t know how Rabbi Hagler knows every student personally in a school that is still growing year over year, but I am sure glad that he does, and he has my infinite gratitude and admiration.

Rabbi Rothwachs said something to his congregant-graduate, which stuck with me: He said, “in life, things unexpectedly happen” and what Yeshivat Noam did was show the graduates that when the chips are down, “with a little love, creativity, effort, and faith you can respond and demonstrate your resilience.” I thought that was exactly the right message for a graduation day, and also a great message for life.

Going Viral & Turning the Virus on Its Head

When the families were finally greenlighted to post their videos and pics online, something fascinating took place: the world took notice. Messages started pouring in from across the US, Canada, Israel, London, even from a school principal in Moscow, Russia telling us that the floating graduation had provided her a beacon of hope in a dark time. The feedback from the school’s families has been an outpouring of love and pride. One person said to us, “This was not just lemons into lemonade,” it was above and beyond. I hope that, by this time next year, the school will not have to replicate this experience – at least not for these reasons – but parents have said that their younger children now want their own floating graduations themselves when their time will come!

Personally, I think the floating graduation resonated so much with our school community and beyond because we fought hard to show the students that we were not going to let COVID-19 win. And we did it with style. It was as if Corona was saying to the students, “you want to come to school for graduation? I won’t let you.” So, we rewrote the script and said, “okay, students, if you can’t come to school, then the school and your graduation will come to you. We will just Bring Graduation Home.” We simply were not going to let Corona fully take away this special time in our children’s lives. Yes, the pandemic has sadly wreaked its havoc and it still does. But with a lot of love, creativity, effort, and faith, we fought back – and we had a small victory. And we did it for our kids, for the amazing Class of 2020.

Epilogue Part I – Gratitude

Three days after the graduations, I was barefoot in my house on Friday afternoon, sneaking a little Shabbos food when I heard the familiar float music coming from another room. I thought one of my kids must be watching one of the many mini-graduation videos circulating online. I realized then that, no, the music was coming from outside my front door! To my surprise, coming down my street was Rabbi Hagler and Morah Adina Mermelstein (the school’s music teacher and our float DJ) on, of all things, a pickup truck draped with the school banner. Behind them was a row of honking cars filled with Yeshivat Noam eighth-grade families who were going around to my home and that of my fellow Caballeros, showing us ha’karat hatov, gratitude, for the floating graduation experience.

I was floored and instantly realized that, even with this, the school is modeling for its students its values and cherished midot. The other dads and I became involved in this for one reason only: for our kids. And so even though I hoped all the hoopla would not detract from the core purpose, making graduation special for the students, I also saw at that moment that everything the school does – even thanking a dad who was already extremely grateful – is for its children. Our children. My child.

Epilogue Part II – What About 86?

One student and her family had left town when the pandemic started and was not home for the floating graduation. Rabbi Hagler said to the Three Caballeros, “I have a sad child who missed graduation, and I can’t tolerate that.” After 85 graduations, we had one more to do. It was the quickest reunion since the Beatles and, on the night the student and her family returned, the band got back together and we all clamored to Newark Airport for one last ceremony. We had no float this time but plenty of pomp and circumstance, and also an okay from the Port Authority police officer at Terminal A. In this gesture of kindness and love, Rabbi Hagler and Yeshivat Noam showed us, once again, that it is all for the kids.

About the Author
Ed Stelzer lives in New Jersey and is a husband and proud father of three daughters and one son.
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