Graduation Relections

MAY 29, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            During the Shabbat of Passover, I spoke on the great Jewish meaning of “redemption.” So when faced with the bulletin deadline 6 weeks ago, realizing that this Shabbat fell either right after Shavuot or for the Orthodox/Conservative world on the second day of the holiday, I naturally turned to the Jewish idea of “revelation,” the way God is revealed to us in our lives. Knowing how busy this week would be for me personally, I prepared a few pages of notes on the subject, looked at them and said to myself, this is not where my heart is for this night. Having experienced two graduations in less than a week, I choose to share that perspective of revelation, for in truth, our children are revealers of the Divine.

As I wrote in my monthly bulletin article, one does not need a ceremony to go through a life cycle event. You can experience the birth of a child without a brit, a birthday without a party, even earning a degree from college without an actual graduation. However, these rituals lift the moment. And so as I attended Sara’s graduation from the University of Texas, along with 7474 of her closest personal classmates, and Mica’s from Isadore Newman School, in a class of 87, I experienced a variety of thoughts and feelings.

Obviously I have an appreciation for pageantry, whether religious or civil. In the case of a graduation you can recognize analogies to various Jewish life cycle events. Honorees wear ritual garb- caps and gowns; and they process to liturgical music- commonly “pomp and circumstance;” At the conclusion they receive a document, not a Ketubah or Bat Mitzvah certificate, but a diploma. And of course there are parties and presents.

You haven’t lived until you have sat with 40,000 parents and family members on the south mall of the UT Campus, all of us present to witness our loved ones graduate. Mercifully they did not call all by name. I was in awe of the choreography of the moment in Austin, music, lights, video screens and fireworks. I would not call it intimate, but it was inspiring. If I heard it once, I heard it fifteen times: “The eyes of Texas are always upon you. Hook’em horns.”

Newman’s graduation was much more personal and southern, with girls in white dresses and boys in white dinner jackets. Half the class has been part of the school since kindergarten. Mica, of course started in 9th grade after attending the New Orleans Jewish Day School. My guess is that few of the graduates realize that Newman’s roots from a century ago were as a training school for the children of the Jewish Orphan’s Home. Who knew that Peyton and Eli were Jewish? Seated in McAllister Auditorium on Tulane campus was also an intimate moment, initiated with Mica’s singing of “America the Beautiful.” In both venues I was a proud father, appreciating God’s gift of children, recognizing that many of my prayers have been answered during the course of their lives.

The Commencement speakers (you don’t graduate, you commence.) at both graduations could not have been more different. Striding to the podium in Austin, wearing cowboy hat, boots and jeans under his academic robe was Robert Rodriguez, a film-maker, who had actually dropped out of UT in the 1990s to pursue his craft. This past year he completed his degree.

In the interim he produced, wrote and directed such action films as El Mariachi, Desperado and Sin City, along with the Spy Kids series. His style was in your face and a bit profane. In the other corner was Governor Bobby Jindal, button downed, intellectual, educated at Brown and Oxford, not known for his oratorical skill. Though their styles were vastly divergent, their messages shared much in common, with concepts from which all can grow:

Both called upon students to keep their minds open to new ideas, not to be satisfied with the way that it’s always been done. Take the attitude that you do not know what can’t be done and be willing to fail if necessary. Second was the wisdom that one needs to be true to values that become the guiding principles of life. Knowledge is good, but living by truths like justice and equality is more important. With the economic crisis in front of us all, both pointed to greed as an ill of our time, to be avoided. Finally came encouragement to be dreamers and not stop. To be labeled a “dreamer” need not be a pejorative. Without dreamers around us, where would we be, how would progress be made?

Numerous speakers added the idea that one does not reach graduation alone. It requires dedicated teachers, men and women who will serve as mentors. One concept that caught my attention was that “peer group and peer pressure” need not be a negative. Finding worthy friends who will challenge you to be better can make all the difference in the world for a person. While these lessons from life were intended for new graduates, they speak to us all.

However graduation is also an emotional moment. Just as today, many of you are surrounded by family for this simcha weekend, so too, I had the opportunity to be with my children and grandchildren, along with much of Lynn’s family. In our mobile society where many of us live great distances from one another, it is important to make the effort to be together for special occasions.

As most of you know, I am an old softy, and so these graduations were highly emotional for me. I so distinctly remember how each of my girls began their freshman years. We brought Sara to college on August 22, parked our car overnight at the hotel to move into the dorm in the morning. We came out to find that thieves had broken into the car and stolen most of her possessions. Not to worry, two women, Sara and Lynn, armed with a list and charge card, made quick work of replacing much of what was stolen. Still this was an inauspicious way to begin college, a harbinger of what was to come later in the week. We returned home on August 24 and evacuated August 27 for Katrina. This is the year of the Katrina class graduations. For Mica, the story was similar to many of yours, she essentially began her Freshman year three times- a few days before Katrina, then in Houston at the Emory Weiner School a few weeks later and again in January, when she returned.

While in the midst of that storm and its aftermath, I dealt with calm and purpose most of the time. For me these graduations, remembering how the journey began have prompted me to recall how traumatic it all was. Tears readily came to my eyes. A Newman student speaker addressed how challenges make classes stronger and how the obvious great challenge of her class was.…. the change in the dress code. She went on to say how the Katrina experience became the springboard for growth. This was a class that was displaced for 6 months to a year.

Graduations brought back many of the memories, but also served to dramatically teach how we can all respond to the most extreme challenges.

And graduations provide an opportunity to think about parenting. Parenting is comparable to God and the mystical story of creation. Initially, all was simply God. Creation was the act of tsimtsum, God contracting to allow space for creation in the world. So too as parents, as our children grow we have to pull back more and more to allow them to expand their experiences, make their mistakes, enjoy their successes. I often explain this reality to B’nai Mitzvah parents, as this life cycle marks the maturity process. It is even more true at graduation time.

In our family, we have evolved a custom of writing notes to our children at milestones. Sometimes it is in the form of the parent’s prayer at B’nai Mitzvah. For me they are actual letters to my children as they move on to the next steps in their lives. Lynn’s practice is a little more humorous, but equally as effective as she prepares and frames a set of commandments. Sara’s were in burnt orange and black ink and Mica’s are in Georgia red and black. This practice is comparable to Jewish ethical wills, when individuals outline the values they wish to pass on to loved ones prior to their death. You can do so with clear statements of values and expectations without laying on guilt. Only this practice begins much earlier. Even when we are away from our children, we can leave a message.

So where was God in the presence of all this observance? Interestingly, there were no formal prayers at either event, but many prayers answered at each. God was revealed in the natural unfolding of the cycle of life, as parents bring children into the world and watch them grow towards independence. God can be found in keen minds seeking wisdom and in the foundation of values upon which we all stand. God was present in the love that permeated the surroundings and was the recipient of many expressions of gratitude. And God will be with all of the students and all of us as we commence to whatever comes next.


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