It takes more than good grades to be a valedictorian. It also takes commitment and insight as can be seen in the students selected this year to represent their graduating classes at local Jewish high schools.
The ‘007 valedictorians including Ari Gartenberg from Torah Academy, Tali Arbit from Frisch, Dan Schwartzman and Max Tokatlilar from Metropolitan Schechter, and Rachael Grosser from Ma’ayanot High School for Girls each delivered important messages to their classmates. Dan and Max were selected as spokesmen by their peers; while Ari, Rachel, and Tali were chosen for their academic performance, and, in Tali’s case, for extracurricular activities as well.
While all of the speeches had some common elements, they each had unique themes. Tali focused on goals, advising her classmates, "When you are so focused on your destination, you miss everything that you pass on the way."
Her speech, which included the week’s parasha and a Rashi commentary, reminded fellow students that while they will spend their lives striving to accomplish their next goal, sometimes they should do something for its own sake or simply because it’s what they want to do. Tali is going to Israel next year and then on to the University of Pennsylvania. Of the 160 students who graduated from Frisch, 105 of them will study in Israel next year.
Dan, who will spend next year in Israel before going to Vassar, had a different message, focusing in large part on Metropolitan Schechter’s unique history.
"Some of us helped found [the] school four years ago . School hasn’t been a place we just attend," he said. "It’s something we’ve been a part of, something we helped create." (Solomon Schechter Regional High School in Teaneck merged last year with Solomon Schechter High School of New York to form Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck.)
Dan expressed the hope that each of his peers would continue "to lead, to innovate, to do what must be done to make things right."
Max also was elected to speak at the Schechter graduation. Originally from Schechter in New York, Max is going to Hunter College next year. His speech centered on the merger, which, he said, was difficult in the beginning. But, he added, "I believe that this merger taught us a lifelong lesson: Things may not always go as we plan, but we can find [the] positive in all situations." He also noted how his class recently bonded on a trip to Israel. Max ended by reiterating the school’s mission, "to prepare young men and women for a lifetime of individual accomplishment, Jewish commitment, and community leadership," concluding, "mission accomplished."
Ari, who will be studying in Israel next year before attending Yeshiva University, focused on Korach, that week’s parasha. He explained that Korach acted as if he didn’t need Moses, a teacher, to help him keep the mitzvot. "Korach maintained that the people were completely capable on their own of keeping, remembering, and observing the mitzvot without the little reminder that was Moshe Rabenu," he said.
But while Korach wanted to minimize the role of the teacher, Ari stressed the importance of having a "teacher who can guide him in the ways of Torah and in the ways of life." He also stressed that his peers not only need teachers but they must, themselves, teach others what they know. And remember, he said, "God has a hand in all that we do."
Rachael talked about the importance of asking questions. "The questions that you ask on your own, your unprovoked statements, are the ones that truly define who you are," she said.
She compared the process of asking questions to the Theory of Endosymbiosis, which proposes that bacteria-like organisms are engulfed by larger organisms in order to form a relationship that is best for both of them. Rachael explained that "though the smaller unit could theoretically function on its own, it chose to lose its individual glory and to live inside the other organism for protection and assistance. And perhaps, every time we ask a question, we are allowing ourselves to be engulfed by the knowledge of the individual to whom we pose it."
Each speech was marked by optimism and hope, as well as a commitment to Judaism and to improving the world. In Dan’s words, "If we were able to help start a school as teenagers, think what we can accomplish as adults."