Just three days before he died, Muhammad Ali made an impact on the graduation of 23 teenagers who are too young to have seen him light the flame at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, let alone seen him fight.

Delivering the d’var Torah at the Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School graduation, held Tuesday night, May 31, in the auditorium of the AJA Lower School in Sandy Springs, Aharon Davidson concluded with a paraphrase of a quote from the former heavyweight champ: “Don’t count every day. Make every day count.”

Salutatorian Greg Shapiro

Salutatorian Greg Shapiro

Davidson drew parallels between counting toward graduation and counting the Omer. Instead of counting down the Omer, we count up — as we should do in life. “Throughout high school I was always counting down,” he said. “This year I realized the value of my Jewish and secular education I was getting here, and I started counting up.”

Every day should be another step toward something, he said. “Begin every day with this in mind: What can I do today to make myself a better person?”

The ceremony’s keynote speaker, David Bokman, also encouraged the graduates to become more self-aware. “The best way to know ourselves deeply is to ask ourselves deep questions,” the Enneagram expert said, referencing the students in a class he taught about the spiritual personality system based on ancient Kabbalah.

Salutatorian Greg Shapiro took years to even let himself ask such questions. “I felt a sense of entitlement so grotesque, I convinced myself I knew the world,” he said of his younger self. However, as he grew in maturity and as a person, he began to allow for self-reflection. “I began asking people how they were feeling — becoming an overall better person.”

This reflection brought him closer to Judaism and taught him humility, in turn letting him become more the person he wants to be. “That’s the goal of high school, isn’t it? Sure, we are getting ready for college. But the main purpose I found is to get ready for life.”

Abby Stein, the valedictorian, spoke about what she called the worst day of her life. After passing out in front of 20 people from donating blood, she received four rejection letters that crushed her dreams of being an Ivy League student. While those emotions are still raw, she said she is beginning to see how that day may lead to better things. “We do not always know what is best for us.”

Stein said she and her classmates will remember high school for the close friendships they formed and the personal interests they developed rather than the conclusions of Ivy League schools. “May we all continue to find our homes in the bonds we’ve created between us and in the passions that continue to define our life.”

Photos by Paula Baroff