Fifteen seniors took to the stage May 29 at the Atlanta Jewish Academy graduation to celebrate their achievements and look toward the future.
While the class of 2019 is smaller than its predecessor in number, it’s impact on the school and on Jewish Atlanta reached well beyond its size, according to John Wilson, head of the Upper School Instructional Leadership Team.
Head of School Rabbi Ari Leubitz opened the ceremony by wondering how everything could move so quickly.
“It only seems like yesterday we were gathered for our first day of school, and now, another year has passed,” he said. “Indeed, it has been a great year, … in and out of the classroom. We have been privileged to watch our students thrive, in the way only an AJA student can.”
He then recognized the faculty and the staff, many of whom helped organize the ceremony. “We will forever be grateful to our staff and our faculty for giving so much to our children,” Leubitz said.
Following the faculty entrance, the graduates took their turn strutting their way through the crowd and claiming their spot on the stage.
“It is a night of celebration, but it is also a night of unique and mixed emotions. On one hand, a door is closing. You are watching your children complete a chapter of their lives. … Don’t worry too much: there’s always money and dirty laundry to bring them back,” Leubitz joked.
A number of speakers followed, including Mark Silberman, board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and Alan Minsk, president of AJA’s board.
“I would like to recognize AJA as … a shining jewel in the landscape of Jewish day schools here in Atlanta,” Silberman said twice, emphasizing its importance to him.
Minsk quoted from international theologian Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, explaining the evolution of the rules of Jewish schools.
“‘A generation ago, Jewish schools were often seen as second best. They were where you send children if they couldn’t get in elsewhere,’” he quoted. “‘Today they are the first choice for many. That is a tribute to their excellence.’”
Students and teachers took the lead for the rest of the ceremony. First, Mayaan Starr and Yitzi Zolty gave the d’var Torah. In an impressive feat, the duo managed to liken questions around kosher fish to what it means to be Jewish.
“The backbone is what makes the fish kosher,” Starr said, quoting halachah, Jewish law. “It is the very quality that allows it to swim upstream. A kosher Jew, just like a kosher fish, must have a backbone that … allows them to swim where no one else dares to go.”
Zolty continued, “No matter the environment we find ourselves in, we should never lose what makes us, us. That trait, like the backbone of the fish, like the description of Avraham, is what makes us special in the eyes of G-d.”
Wilson then took the stage to congratulate the graduates and discuss their achievements.
“While life is our greatest teacher, and there are more lessons to come, I say with great confidence that the graduating class of 2019 is fully equipped with the skills and knowledge they will need to be successful in life’s next chapter,” he said.
Dave Byron, Upper School English teacher and 2019 grade dean, then gave his keynote address to the class. In true English teacher fashion, he couldn’t resist telling a story and explaining the imagery in it.
“Too often we are critical of our past, and too often we are anxious about our future, and as a result, we miss out on the beautiful and bountiful present,” he said. “The past was, and the future will be, but now is the only time that is.”
Next came Zoe Sokol to give her salutatorian address, which focused on passion.
“What do people always say? ‘Find your passion, follow your passion.’ What does that even mean?” she asked.
She described her challenge to understand the word and ultimately discovering it by struggling in AP Biology.
Valedictorian Medad Lytton was the final speaker, and he discussed some of the challenges and contradictions of following halachic law, such as shomer negiah, the restriction not to touch members of the opposite sex outside of marriage.
“When I look at our class, I see contradictions, but I also see a community born out of these contradictions,” he said. “The common struggle unifies us as a class.”
Then it was time for the main event as students took turns hearing remarks compiled from the thoughts of upper school faculty — a benfit of having a class size of 15.
The class of 2019 received a standing ovation as they exited the auditorium, toward their future colleges, yeshivot, Israel Defense Forces service, and other choices.