Keynote Speech: Commencement 2024

My Dear Graduates. 

In the Jewish tradition, even in moments of our most intense joy, we stop to remember that there are elements of the world that are broken. 

Today—as we come together in celebration– it is important to mourn those who have died, those who are still in captivity, and all people who continue to suffer. No one celebrates the suffering that comes with just wars. 

I now invite the ShenaniGanns to lead us in Acheinu, a medieval prayer that Jewish communities around the world have been reciting since October 7. 

When I asked anyone who traveled to California about their trip, I kept hearing the story about a hole that several of you dug on the beach. Apparently, a group of students, who will remain nameless, decided to dig a huge hole in the sand. It was a group endeavor, with students zealously joining the task, to dig– well–a hole in the sand. At some point, a circle of friends gathered around the hole, cheering the diggers on. “It was huge,” said one student. “Ridiculously big,” said another “The length of a man. The size of a car.” The hole kept on growing in mythic proportion.

I asked one of your chaperones, Elazar Waldman, about the hole and he shrugged. “The essence of the moment was about realizing that it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing. What matters is who are doing it with. And if you are doing it with friends, you can even make digging a hole a fun memory.”Now. There was part of me that thought—really?  We spent all that time, energy, and planning to send you 2600 miles away and the highlight of your trip was digging a huge hole on the beach. The story of the hole in the sand made me think of all the joyful moments you have created over the past four years, even at times that on the face of it, were not inherently joyous:

  • Your very first day of high school, August 24, 2020–at the height of the COVID pandemic– was the same day as a heat wave in Boston. Our program was entirely outside that day and you showed up to Gann, setting up your beach towels, with beach chairs, hand-held fans, and cute little sun umbrellas and parasols. The scene was joyous and even a bit ridiculous-like 80 people going to the beach… in Waltham during a pandemic. I think I will always hold that bizarrely joyous day in my memory. 

  • A few weeks later, you began your COVID sports season, if we can even call it that. Remember how “soccer practice” entailed you dribbling a soccer ball alone by yourself in a circle? Or volleyball require wearing gloves and wiping off balls between sets? As the Pandemic receded, your class dominated the court, the field, and the pitch. It was not only our talented athletes who brought joy to the community, but equally spirited were the many Gann fans. 

  • From Midsummer’s Night Dream and Ranked to  12th Night and Anything Goes, your class delighted us with your artistic talents. You created joy with your paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, with your graphic designs, and your musical notes from Chamber to Jazz and back again. 

  • So many moments of joy came from the celebration of Shabbat and Chagim, the holiday. There were the Sukkot you designed in Jewish Studies classes, the Purim shpiels, and musical chairs at Hakhel followed by compelling D’vrei Torah. Your Shabbatonim was amazing. Your class has had among the best Havdalah experiences any of us have ever witnessed. 

  • In Israel, too, there were dozens of moments of intense joy. The fairly sketchy Yom Ha’atzmaut Celebration in Lod. Eating shwarma, playing beach volleyball, and listening to Israeli music on the bus with our madrichim.  Remember that beautiful brand-new playground in Sderot we played on?  We found a moment of joy on the hardest and saddest day of our trip when we went down to the Gaza Envelope. 

So–as you leave high school– and enter the adult world- my wish for you is to retain the joy you have found these past 4 years. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Continue to find joy even in moments that are absurd and hard. Embrace the Jewish rituals that are all about joy–Kabbalat Shabbat, Havdalah, Sukkot, and Purim. Shavuot is this coming week. We have so many wonderful rituals that help create joy in community. 

As you were leaving that beach on the Pacific Coast, do you remember Jacqui’s directive? “Oh no,” she said “we are not leaving that hole there. We need to work to fill it in.” While the hole in the sand was a joy to create, we have an obligation to fill it back in, and you the Class of 2024– have that same obligation to fill in the holes you see in the world. There are so many holes that need to be filled in. I’m not talking about holes you have created. The holes you will encounter will be much more complex, more problematic, more challenging, and require moral courage.  But you can’t leave them there. You must fill in the hole. 

If this school has taught you one thing–it is that you have the responsibility to go out into the world and fill in those holes. The world is broken, my friends. There is so much suffering, too much war, hunger, hatred, and prejudice. As you know too well, the Jewish community both in Israel and in the diaspora is facing tremendous challenges and existential questions. You must not walk away. 

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לְהִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

It is not your duty to complete the work but neither can you desist from it. 

As you travel far from here, keep a look out for the holes in the world that you need to fill in. Because you–uniquely– have the skills, the gifts, and the responsibility to do so. Next year, or the year after, you might accidentally walk into a hole on campus or in the dining hall. Do not walk away. You have the knowledge, the voice, and the composure, to speak up with nuance, empathy, and pride about Israel, about being Jewish, and about many other topics. 

Bogrim Hayakarim, my beloved graduates. We are going to miss you. We–your teachers– have been on an incredible, improbable, joyful, and challenging journey with you these past four years and now it is time for you to continue your journey outside these walls. 

But before you leave, take in this vast theater of people who love you and believe in you. Look around and take it all in one last time. We will always be here for you. It is been our privilege to be on this journey with you, Class of 2024. 

May you always be blessed to go from strength to strength.  Chazak chazak v’yechazek. Mazal tov.