The impact of COVID-19 has affected the most minute details of everyday life. We students everywhere, specifically seniors, have watched the last few months of our school year disappear. End-of-year activities, high school traditions and countless events have been canceled due to COVID-19 and have sent some graduates into the world without the closure necessary to move on.
As an extremely close-knit community, the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston brainstormed how to put together a ceremony that could properly honor its graduates while simultaneously following state safety guidelines. Due to the uncertainty of social distancing regulations, many students were initially skeptical of the idea of a fulfilling graduation amid a pandemic. They also feared the event would run parallel to a recurring theme of the last few months––disappointment.
However, as shown by its bold preparation and astounding attention to detail, the graduation was bound to stand out.
As keynote student speaker Josh Shapiro commented, “I wasn’t sure what would happen but I knew that it would be done well. We didn’t know the specifics at first, but in passing heard bits and pieces of rumors. At the end of the day, graduation certainly exceeded expectations.”
After releasing a survey which outlined two options—an outdoor car graduation on June 10 or an in-person alternative around July 6—there was a division in student opinion. Many who passionately lobbied for one option claimed to represent a class majority, while those who advocated the other alternative claimed the same majority of opinion. This put much of the school administration in a predicament, although they were initially inclined to choose the in-car option.
“This pandemic has given us the feeling that nothing will end,” said Gary Berger, assistant principal. “That we will always be like this forever, that we don’t know what the next day will bring.”
Most students wanted a meaningful event to seal off the time spent in school, and prolonging the graduation date would only put them back in the same policy limbo they’d been experiencing these past few months.
As Shapiro put it, “After four years of high school, we wanted closure. While we love the school and everything they have done for us, we did not want to feel tethered until July or perhaps later.”
After much deliberation among administration and student representatives, the in-car option was chosen for a June 10 graduation. A committee of RKYHS administration, event professionals and community leaders began to bring the idea to life.
In just a day, an interactive website was set up for the 2020 graduation, which included a visual walkthrough of where cars should drive, a pamphlet with a schedule and a Zoom link for the ceremony’s live broadcast. A package of car decorations was also sent to each house, containing balloons, confetti, window markers and countless other forms of embellishment.
Members of the community, such as the Zuckerman family, had a big hand in much of the graduation’s success. Deborah Zuckerman, head of the graduation preparation committee, arranged for a stage, glare-free LED screens and used hoola hoops as six-feet distance markers to help safely welcome graduates. Her goal was to make each student feel special in a time when COVID-19 dragged attention away from students’ achievements.
“Deborah’s foresight, leadership and financial support must be recognized,” Berger said.
We students were endlessly grateful for the team that spent up to 18 hours a day planning the event, and the ensuing ceremony became a day we would never forget.
Arches of balloons guided the parade of cars and every car was distinctly decorated. Some were emboldened with congratulations, nicknames and inside jokes, while others were full of balloons and confetti. It was almost like an amusement ride to see the event unfold behind a closed window while knowing that all of our friends and classmates were there alongside us.
After receiving a package of delicious food and a cooler with cold drinks, we were directed to our parking spots. By tuning to the 107.3 FM radio channel, each car could hear the same music and the poignant speeches of Head of School Rabbi Rubin, President Dov Lando and Shapiro. In compliance with local health regulations, each student was assigned a number and group so that he or she could leave their cars and receive their diplomas when their name was called. The attention to detail showed itself in every aspect of the event—whether it be the short description that followed the call of each name, the huge LED screens showing pictures of each student or the outpour of confetti that covered the sky as the ceremony concluded.
“What stood out to me,” said Berger, “was the explosion of confetti; it was that single, spectacular little idea which generated so many smiles and a joy that was almost palpable.”
After months of so many indefinites and unknowns, the reality of our graduation finally began to set in. We no longer saw our senior year as part of the wreckage of the pandemic, but as a symbol of our ability to find happiness and closure within even the most restrictive conditions.
In these extreme times, our graduation proved that nothing could put a limit on the camaraderie of our grade. It showed us that whether it be online, in person or in a car, we would always be connected.
Josh Gindi and Hannah Kirsch are graduates of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and interns at The Jewish Link this summer.