Mid-June on the North American calendar is graduation season. In the Jewish community, hundreds, nay thousands, of graduations will take place, celebrating the accomplishments of our students, and hopefully inspiring them as they continue their journey, one in which dedication to the Jewish people will hopefully be a central feature.

The importance of a commencement exercise is a given for the vast majority of the Jewish community, yet it is another example of “Minhag America”, a novel practice that is taken for granted in America, but is a break from traditional norms[1]. There were no graduations from the cheder and neither Volozhin, Mir, nor Slobodka held an annual commencement exercise. Such would be a frivolous waste of time at best, and a forbidden imitation of gentile ways at worst.

While that may (or may not) have been true for Eastern Europe, America is different. Rabbi Dr. Bernard (Dov) Revel, the first President of Yeshiva University, in preparation for the first graduating class of Yeshiva College, wrote: “The first class of Yeshiva College, if it pleases the Almighty, will receive their degrees in June 1932, a ceremony unique in the annals of educational history.” Unique it was – especially for a yeshiva modelled in many ways after the great yeshivot of Eastern Europe. In Volozhin, there was no beginning of the year, no end of the year, no standard length of study and no degrees conferred. The class of 1932 had 19 graduates paving the path for thousands more, including my father z”l, myself and my daughter.

Perhaps the almost universal acceptance of commencement exercises is due to the crowning achievement of North American Jewry, the establishment and phenomenal growth of the Day School Movement. It is natural that a system that includes curriculum, oversight, tests, guidance, professional training, extracurricular activities and grade levels would have a graduation to mark the successful completion of years and levels of study. It is in many ways, no different than a celebration of a siyum, the completion of learning a section of Talmud. And there is much to celebrate. There is no doubt that our generation is one of the most learned in all of Jewish history[2] – and most of the credit must go to our day schools. The average graduate today has studied more texts and has greater knowledge than the vast, vast majority of Jews from time immemorial[3].

Our graduation ceremonies are one more indication of the complete acculturation of the Jewish community in America, including wide swaths of the Orthodox community. With gowns and tassels, a valedictory address, scholastic awards and a charge to the graduates, it can be hard to distinguish a graduation of a secular public school from a Yeshiva High school – unless and until one listens to the speeches. The linking of graduation to the parsha of the week[4], words of Hebrew (one hopes), a charge to the students to live by the Jewish values that have been (hopefully) inculcated, and the centrality of continued Jewish education (especially in Israel) are some of the ways in which we acknowledge what Rav Soloveitchik noted, that we are both gerim and toshavim, strangers and residents, in these wonderful lands.

Graduations can be for all but graduates, parents and especially grandparents, pretty boring affairs. Lots of speeches, giving awards to people most don’t know, and reading out hundreds of names as each graduate gets to have their picture taken can be a bit of drag. Yet, boring or not, graduation is one of the milestones in one’s life. It is a chance to both look back and look forward, to gain inspiration and to recognize the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.

Tonight, our youngest son, Elnatan, will graduate from TanenbaumCHAT, marking the end of 24 years for Ilana and myself as parents of children in the Jewish day school system of Toronto. It is a time for us too to look back and to look forward. We begin with our hakarat hatov to Netivot Hatorah, Yeshivat Or Chaim, Ulpanat Orot and TanenbaumCHAT for educating our children. They have learned much and, more importantly, we are blessed that all our children love learning – in so many different areas. Many of their skills were nurtured and developed, friendships were made, and new horizons opened at school.

It is hard to believe how quickly time flies. It seems as if it were just yesterday that our eldest, Ariel, began nursery. What a privilege to go to siddur parties, so many performances and many more parent teacher conferences than I can count. And who can forget carpool?

As we celebrate, we must not rest on our laurels. No school is perfect, and we must always strive to make our schools better and better. Those who know me or have read my many articles over the years (especially in the Canadian Jewish News) know that my charge to the community is that once and for all, we ensure that tuition is affordable for all.

We have seen the first fruits of success. The lowering of tuition by $10,000 at TanenbuamCHAT has directly led to an increase of enrolment of over 50%, representing some 450 Jewish children. As this model has begun to copied in various forms it has begun to revolutionize our thinking on tuition. Thus, after 17 years of declining enrolment, the “non-orthodox” elementary schools in Toronto have seen increased enrolment over the past two years.

We dare not let this revolution be stillborn. While we are one of the most educated generations in Jewish history, we are far from being the wealthiest in Jewish history. We must aim to implement the decree of Rav Yehoshua ben Gamla that the Jewish community offer free education to all its students. He is “to be remembered for good, for if not for him Torah would have been forgotten from the Jewish people” (Bava Batra 21b).

Thank G-d we have the ability to follow his model, but do we have the will? Let us hope and pray – and most importantly act – so that by the time this year’s graduates are parents in the day school system, such a system will be in place. If we can do so – and we can – so many more Jewish children will have the opportunity for a Day School experience, an experience that will enrich us all.

Mazal tov Elnatan to you and to all your classmates.


[1] Other Minhagei America include the virtual abandonment of piyyutim, beautiful liturgical poetry that adorned our davening, the recital of yotzrot during special shabbatot, sermons in English (or any language for that matter – though these did exist in Western Europe), the huge bar-mitzva celebration and any celebration of a bat-mitzva. The radical nature of a bat-mitzva celebrations was such that in 1927 Rav Aharon Wolkin, one the leading poskim, experts in Jewish law in Eastern Europe declared the  celebration of a bat-mitzva to be akin to idolatry (Responsa Zekan Aharon, Orach Chaim # 6). .

[2] The one known exception was during the reign of Chizkiyahu some 2,800 years ago.

[3] Being ignorant – not even knowing the Hebrew alphabet – at age 40 as was Rabbi Akiva, was the norm. Our Sages ruled that the Amidah must be repeated by the chazzan because the majority of Jews had no idea of how to pray. No repetition was done at Maariv for the simple reason that the majority of Jews did not daven Maariv.

[4] This is easy for graduations taking place this week, with the Torah “introducing” the 40-year journey of the Jewish people in the desert, a period of time that corresponds to the length of many a career – a perfect theme for a graduate school commencement.