Graduation Ceremonies Follow Challenging Year for Jewish Students

While each school has its own approach, Jewish values were central to the programs at a time when it’s increasingly challenging to be Jewish on college campuses.
June 5, 2024

When De Toledo High School, a college preparatory school in West Hills, held its graduation ceremony for the more than 80 seniors in its 2024 class, the school continued its longstanding tradition, one that has been around since its inaugural 2006 class, of each graduate having a tallit presented to them by their respective parents.

The atarah, or the neckband of the tallit, sewn along the edge of the tallit closest to the head, was designed by the Jewish high school’s first arts teacher, and it features an intertwined knot — symbolizing, according to de Toledo Head of School Mark Shpall, connectiveness. Also, at a fraught moment for Jews around the world, the students’ wearing of the tallit signifies Jewish pride.

About a month prior to this year’s graduation ceremony, all the de Toledo parents of seniors were on campus and tied the tzitzit (fringes) of their senior’s tallit. 

“They’re actually completing the tallis for their graduate,” Shpall told the Journal in a Zoom interview before the June 6 graduation. “We have a structure that we’ve refined over the years that really contributes to this becoming a very meaningful ceremony.”

With the end of the academic year finally here, the community’s high schools celebrated their seniors during in-person graduation ceremonies. While each school has its own unique approach to the annual ritual of celebrating its graduates, Jewish values were central to the programs at a time when it’s increasingly challenging to be Jewish on college campuses, thus creating some uncertainty for the students in the year ahead.

Milken Community School, which serves grades 6-12, is among the country’s largest pluralistic Jewish high schools. This year, the school’s celebrating a 12th grade class that has more than 120 students, and those in the class of 2024 are attending 30 different colleges in more than 15 states. There are even two graduates who will be joining the Israel Defense Forces. 

The school’s graduation ceremony will be held June 10 at the Greek Theatre. Approximately 1,500 attendees are expected. 

According to the school’s leadership, it hasn’t been an easy year for the seniors. The Oct. 7 attack in Israel occurred right in the heart of college application season. The subsequent rise in nationwide antisemitism, particularly on college campuses, led to some of the school’s graduating seniors, particularly those committing to schools as early-decision applicants, to reevaluate their options.

“What we’ve seen happening and tried to facilitate is informed decision-making,” Milken Community School Head of School Sarah Shulkind told the Journal.

Shpall, who has been at de Toledo for 22 years, said concern about antisemitism on college campuses has been a constant topic of conversation among parents of graduating seniors.

“They would be woefully unaware if they didn’t have some level of concern,” he told the Journal.

In turn, Shpall has urged seniors and their parents to find Jewish life on campuses next year that can provide a sense of community, whether it’s courtesy of the college Hillel, Chabad or a Jewish Greek organization. 

“Almost every university has some unrest, some antisemitism,” Shpall said, pointing to anti-Israel protests that have taken place over the past several months at USC, UCLA, Columbia University and UC Berkeley, among other schools. 

But if a student decided not to attend the college they always wanted to go to because they were afraid of facing antisemitism, “the antisemites win,” Shpall said. 

Shulkind agreed, saying schools where there’s been some of the most visible antisemitism would benefit from having pro-Jewish voices on campus.

“In a lot of ways, those places need our kids.” – Sarah Shulkind

“In a lot of ways, those places need our kids,” the Milken head of school said.

To be sure, antisemitism on college campuses wasn’t a primary concern for the graduating class at Sinai Akiba Academy (SAA), which serves early-childhood through grade 8, but at the eighth-grade graduation ceremony, held June 6, the speakers discussed the middle school’s six core values. This includes “love for Israel.”

Each soon-to-be ninth grader was admitted to their top-choice high school next year, including Milken, Beverly Hills High School and Shalhevet High School.

What did all the ceremonies have in common? While these days Oct. 7 is always top of mind, they celebrated first and foremost students’ character and achievement — beyond simply their grades. 

“One of the unique things that’s always been part of our culture is the graduation is fully focused on the graduates,” Shpall said. “There’s no ranking of our students. We do not rank them. Graduation does not have any individual accolades. This is about our entire class and the class graduating together. It’s just been our ethos since the beginning not to differentiate the kids over their grade-point-averages.”

At Milken, the ceremony kicks off with the blowing of the shofar, a ritual that’s also done at the beginning of the seniors’ school year. The ceremony convenes all the school’s faculty, from grades 6-12, underscoring how each member of the teaching staff had an impact on the academic life of the students. 

The ceremony concludes with a recitation of a nigun, a religious song sung in groups.

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