Reflections on Another Graduation

On Monday, my boss sent out a note to our “Operations Team” asking if someone was available to bring welcome remarks and congratulations to the graduating eighth grade class at The Epstein School. I immediately emailed him back, saying that I was free and, as a parent of alumni, would be happy to present the next evening on our organization’s behalf.

I immediately sat down to type up the remarks that I wanted to offer. My thoughts flowed quickly and easily as I typed away. As I neared the end, I could not ignore the lump in my throat and stinging tears in my eyes. Oh no, I thought. Would I be able to read this speech aloud without cracking? I emailed it to my husband and kids; their feedback warmed my heart. With their votes of support, I knew my words were on track.

*   *   *

The next day, I left the office a full hour before the graduation was to begin. I figured that sixty minutes was plenty of time to travel 13.8 miles, park, and find my seat in the gymnasium. Boy, was I wrong! The traffic was bumper-to-bumper the entire way. I cut back and forth between highway lanes; then took back roads. I was sweating, cursing, and biting my nails the whole trip there. I couldn’t stop thinking, Oh, my God! How will I tell my family and colleagues that I didn’t fulfill my commitment and missed the graduation (not to mention my three minutes in the spotlight) because of traffic?!?!?

I arrived at the school ten minutes late. I parked, took off my pumps, and ran like a lunatic through the lot and into the building. I entered the gym quickly and slipped into an empty seat at the end of the front row. Trying to appear calm and unflustered, I was relieved to see that the program had opened with some sort of rap-style (or was it hip-hop?) musical number. Whew. I hadn’t missed my cue. I breathed deeply, trying to slow my pounding heart, and wiped the sweat from my forehead.

*   *   *

The Head of School, Stan Beiner, introduced me and called me to the podium on the stage. I settled my nerves and began:

“On behalf of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta — the staff, the board, and the volunteers — I volunteered to speak to you today because it was a selfish opportunity to walk down my own lane of memories. You see, I sat in this very gym nine years ago as my daughter graduated from this wonderful school. While I knew she’d be going on to high school at Weber, I had no way of knowing that she’d then move on to Tulane University; would join AEPhi; and now would be living in Chicago working for a marketing firm.

But that’s not all. Eleven years ago, I sat here when my son graduated from Epstein. At that time, he was bound for North Springs High School. I couldn’t know, however, that his time there would be short-lived. He ended up transferring to Weber for his sophomore year; graduated and headed for Cornell University; and now is working for a private equity firm in Chicago.

But there’s more. Listen up, graduates! My son is now engaged to a fellow Epstein alumna, whom he met and has dated from their days in high school at Weber. The wedding is this Labor Day Weekend and – in the bridal party and on the guest list – are many other Epstein graduated who are all friends to this day. So, who knows? YOU could end up marrying a classmate too!

As I in this gymnasium a decade ago, none of this was on my mind. I just sat here – as you are now – marveling at the passage of time and unable to predict or imagine the future.

But as much as the Epstein School did for our family, it created an “Aha!” moment for me personally. As a result of what our children were learning, my husband and I decided to learn more about Judaism too. Even as full-time working parents, we enrolled in an adult Jewish education course (the Florence Melton program) at the JCC. From there, having become enamored with Jewish learning, I went on to earn a master’s degree in Jewish Studies. My newfound passion caused me to leave the corporate world behind to work in the Jewish not-for-profit one.

As I sat here way back then, if you told me that one day I’d be working for the Federation, I would have laughed out loud! But now I don’t laugh. The Federation takes Jewish education very seriously – here and around the world. Education, whether formal or informal, changes lives for the better. With funds that are raised from the annual community campaign, money is allocated to support Jewish education in Atlanta (over $1.7 million) and in our overseas partnership communities of Minsk, Belarus and in Yokneam-Megiddo, Israel. We also fund summer camping initiatives, as well as experiences in Israel.

I am very proud to be part of an organization, a community, and a people who recognize the importance of and the responsibility to help others as a means to help ourselves — Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh.

Many years ago, Cheryl Finkel, the head of school before Stan, told my husband that The Epstein School would help turn my son into a mentsch. I didn’t know it would make me one too.”

*   *   *

Mazel tov to all of this year’s graduates, families, and friends. May you continue to grow from strength to strength as you embrace exciting new opportunities, possibilities, and the journeys to come.

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