Read the remarks below that Rabbi Malkus delivered to the CESJDS Class of 2017 at their commencement on Sunday, February 12, 2017 at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
Class of 2017—congratulations! Mazal tov. You have officially turned in your last final, filled out your last college application, dominated your last game against the Hebrew Academy, won your last zimriah. It feels pretty good, doesn't it? Parents—I think congratulations are in order as well. I know it took a lot of schlepping... and early morning wake-ups... but you've raised some extraordinary young people. Let's hear it for your parents! And to the two thirds of you watching your last JDSer leave the nest, I'm pleased to thank you for having made your final JDS tuition payment.
Today is a special moment for your teachers as well—and for me especially. This is my fourth year at CESJDS. I joined this community when you were 9th graders, and I've been privileged to watch you grow, from your first Shabbaton to walking the halls of the Lower School a few weeks ago. Seeing you here is perhaps the highlight of my year. Which is really saying something, since this year my beloved Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series. (Go, Cubs, Go!)
In a little while, you'll get your diplomas. But first, I want to take a moment to reflect on the significance of this ceremony. What does this milestone—your graduation—mean? Yesterday, in Parashat Beshalach, we read the story of the Israelites escaping from bondage and making their way to Eretz Yisrael. Hopefully, the seniors don't take that as metaphor. In fact, if your senior capstone trip takes 40 years, I'd ask El Al for a refund. Appropriately enough, Beshalach means "letting go." It's about passing from one phase of life to another, from structure and certainty to freedom and the unknown. Like the people of Israel, the time has come for you to wade into the waters and begin a new adventure. The Promised Land—with no parental supervision—lies ahead of you. It's tremendously exciting... It's nostalgic... It's maybe a little bit scary.
Believe me, I know. I went from a Jewish day school of 45 graduates to a huge public high school with 1,000 students per grade, to an even larger university. During orientation at Columbia, some classmates and I stumbled upon police breaking up a card game in the Village—definitely not something I often saw in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up. It took me about three months to spend all of my money for the year on Broadway shows. My parents told me "tough luck"... but then relented and sent some more. I hope your parents are as forgiving.
You, too, will encounter different and likely challenging environments—whether in college, or in Israel, or during a gap year. You'll confront new ideas. You'll wrestle with questions about your personal relationships, about honesty and academic integrity, about who you are as Jews and as Americans. As dizzying as I found life after graduation, the world you're about to enter is filled with even more complexity... more shades of gray... and more contradictions.
It is easier than ever, for instance, to connect across nationalities and religions ... but fear of that openness is leading many people to turn inward and seek the comfort of their own tribes. We can access entire libraries worth of information in the palm of our hands ... but the cacophony on our TV and computer screens makes it harder than ever to discern the truth. Jews are more woven into the fabric of American life than ever before ... yet we've seen acts of vandalism and hateful messages appear... even in our own communities.
Faced with this reality, some of you may be inclined to turn around and seek the safety of Ms. Dagony's Hebrew class. Others of you may be wondering: How will you navigate the world beyond JDS? As you cross the metaphorical Red Sea mentioned in this week's parashah, will you sink or swim? Do you have what it takes to make it? The answer is: "Absolutely." You have what it takes. You're ready. You've got this. And the reason I'm so confident is because of what you have learned here... at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.
Now, I don't just mean the classes you've taken or the accomplishments you've racked up—learning how to sequence DNA ... publishing award-winning newspapers ... even how to make the perfect cake to win Color War. You're prepared because at JDS you've completed more than an exemplary general and Jewish studies education. You've also received a first-rate moral education. I think of it like the midrash of the convert, the Gentile who goes to Hillel and Shammai and promises to become a Jew if they can teach him the whole Torah while he stands on one foot. Shammai, you may recall, chases the man away. But Hillel accepts the challenge and replies with the essence of Judaism, in words short enough to Tweet: "Don't do to others what would be hateful to you. That is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary." You may not fully realize it yet...but the core values you've absorbed here... over the past four years or fourteen years... that's the whole Torah. The rest, with all due respect to your other studies, is commentary.
In more secular terms, consider the two types of virtues identified by New York Times columnist—and former JDS parent—David Brooks, in his recent book, The Road to Character, which I read this summer. Brooks distinguishes between what he calls "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." Resume virtues are "the skills that you bring to the job market and that represent external success"... Eulogy virtues are ones "that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kinds of relationships you formed."
Judging from the colleges you've heard from and will hear from, you have resume virtues in spades. But your eulogy virtues are, if possible, even more impressive. In the School's halls and in your homes, in big ways and small ways, you've discovered what it means to be a good Jew ... a good citizen ... and a good person. You haven't just learned strong values; you've lived strong values. You've studied Dickens and written code for robots—in Hebrew.
That's the lifelong love of learning and Torah, of mastering our oldest traditions and newest technologies, that you will draw on in the years ahead as curious, holistic learners. You've created an anonymous compliment system, posting encouraging notes on your classmates' lockers just to make sure everyone felt noticed and appreciated and included. That's the kehillah—the diverse, welcoming, inclusive community—you'll take with you and will always be a part of at JDS. You've inaugurated our new gender-neutral bathroom. That's v'ahavta l'reyecha, the love for your neighbor, that you will continue to demonstrate. You've passionately debated policies toward Israel, even as you join together to sing and dance on Yom Ha'atzma'ut. That's the profound love of Israel that I know will only grow deeper in the coming months and years. You've joined the Women's March to fight for your rights and volunteered to help feed the homeless. That's the enduring commitment to tikun olam that I know will drive so many of you to work to repair our broken world.
Sooner or later, in that complicated world out there, these values will be tested. By new and competing convictions ... By the demands of daily life ... By a desire to fit in. My wish for you as you cross over into this brave new world ... is that you hold fast to your values—the Torah of Hillel—even as you grow and mature as individuals. Cherish the convictions you've nurtured here at JDS. Look to them for answers and let them be guideposts on your journey through life. If you do that, you won't just survive in the years ahead, you will thrive in the years ahead.
In Beshallach we are told that ... as the Israelites wandered the desert ... "the Lord went before them by day in a cloud to lead them along the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light." In your own travels, I wish that you, like the children of Israel, are protected and sustained by the pillars of our faith and the light of our teachings. Class of 2017, we are so proud of you. We're inspired by you. And we can't wait to see what you'll do see next. Mazal tov, and good luck.
Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus