This afternoon (May 29, 2019), my 8th-grade son came home with his maroon graduation cap and gown. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this moment…this milestone…the day the wrinkled ceremonial graduation attire is put on for the first time. The trial run when all of a sudden… it becomes a reality. They. Are. Graduating. They are leaving the cozy confines of elementary school to head out into the big kids’ next chapter. It’s always jarring. It’s always surreal. It’s always maturing and sobering. And it never gets old.
I pretty much already had the picture taken and caption pre-written in my head—something like—“So this is happening…” Baruch HaShem, it’s the 4th time we’ve done this scene, once in white and three times in maroon. Same school, same cap and gown, different kid. Except tonight, we didn’t take that picture. And my son didn’t try on his cap and gown. It remains sitting on the dining room table in the plastic wrap it came home in because at 6:00 pm sharp, we were rushed to a different headspace in a different venue. “An evening of Reflection and Inspiration,” as the invitation called it. “A Kiddush Hashem through Emunas Hashem.”
Being a part of Arie Crown Hebrew Day School for as long as I can remember, let’s just say there are a lot of exciting but expected traditions. Cap and gown day is one of them. But, today was not that day nor that tradition. Today was unexpected. And I wasn’t the least bit prepared. It was the culmination of the Arie Crown Eighth Grade “Lunch with a Legend” Program. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. It’s only in its second year.
At approximately 6:30 pm, we were gathered at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center with almost seventy 8th graders as well as their parents, teachers, administrators, and honored Holocaust “Legends” who had come to school throughout the year to sit with the 8th graders each month and shared their personal stories of the horrors they saw and endured throughout the Holocaust and their narrative of how each survived the Holocaust. The Legends inspired the students with the Emunah that got them through, and the lives they chose to re-build for themselves after the war, in order to remain Torah observant Jews. Every month, each legend handed over a “mesorah of memories” in order that our 8th graders should have something “tangible” or “first-hand” to take with them after graduation and pass on to the next generation.
The highlight of the program featured every 8th-grade student, who stood in front of these Legends—and a crowd of hundreds of other people—and publicly shared their personal thoughts about what each had gained from his or her experience of the program. And before my very eyes, I saw a group of kids become young adults…because of the stories that they heard first-hand and the internalization of pieces of living Jewish history they never ever knew about or heard about. It enriched them. It changed them. And all of a sudden they seemed different and looked different, even without caps and gowns.
There were Divrei Torah and Divrei Chizuk and gifts that were presented to the Legends who came to gave their time and shared their lives and personal and difficult stories. And at the end there was singing: separate kumzitzes were held with beautiful melodies carrying words of Torah sung by the students to the Legends as if to say “YOU did this.” We are here because of YOUR choices. Look at us…at what YOUR sacrificed did so that we could be here. We can sing tonight because YOU perpetuated Yiddishkeit for us.
And then it was over. And we came home. And we forgot all about caps and gowns. And I can’t really explain it better than that. But, if you’re among the lucky ones, you’ll get to be there one day and experience it for yourself.
So, tonight, we took a different picture. And that picture is captioned. “8th graders and cousins, Noam Greenland and Avraham Kirshner presenting a gift to their great Uncle Jack and Auntie Anne Maryles Shetichye, Legends who survived the Holocaust and chose to live their lives and raise their children Al Kiddush Hashem. May Hashem continue to give them —and all the “Legends” —the koach to keep sharing their stories in health for many years.