Imagine you’re an 8th grader and your school administrators show up at your house. Either you’re in big trouble—or you are about to experience the best graduation of a lifetime.
On May 3, when the pandemic was at its height, Rabbi Chaim Hagler, head of school at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, hosted a Zoom conference with 8th graders and their parents to discuss how to celebrate their graduation in a safe, meaningful, and memorable way. A few great suggestions were batted about, including a drive-by graduation or perhaps a ceremony at a drive-in movie theater. One parent, Chanan Vogel, unmuted himself and said, “Let’s do something crazy—like a flash mob and fireworks!”
Everyone laughed — but Rabbi Hagler was taking notes.
Knowing that Chanan was an out-of-the-box thinker as well as the son of Rabbi Sam and Lorraine Vogel, former directors of Camp MaTov—people who are known to have “big ideas”—Rabbi Hagler appreciated Chanan’s enthusiasm and asked him to partner with a dedicated team of creative, capable parents to create the most memorable graduation ceremony possible. Over the next few weeks, Rabbi Hagler put together a dream team of parents, including Chanan, Ed “Icky” Stelzer, and Ari Wartelsky, who together developed a Top Secret plan.
If they couldn’t bring the kids to graduation, why not bring the graduation to them—one at a time?
“Ari, Icky, and I shared a belief that covid-19 may have shut down a traditional graduation ceremony but it created a once-in-a-lifetime chance to provide a fun, meaningful, personalized graduation experience for each graduate and their family,” Chanan said.
How do you create a mobile graduation? A parade float! The float was decorated to resemble a traditional graduation stage, with a podium, school banners, and Israeli and American flags. The team arranged a role for every person on the float and even received private-donor funding to assist in covering the expense of this spectacular graduation on wheels. In addition to Rabbi Hagler and his wife, Chavie, some of the other school leaders riding the parade float for two full days included the middle school general studies principal, Aliza Chanales; the music teacher, Adina Mermelstein, who was the DJ; Amy Vogel, the school’s director of development and communications, who took pictures and added ruach, and Luis Sanchez, the school’s head of maintenance, who oversaw the celebration’s technical aspects. The team paid attention to every detail to make sure it all would be safe and compliant with social distancing guidelines. They told the local police about their plans.
Leading up to the surprise on Sunday and Monday, May 31 to June 1, every parent was sent a two-hour window in which they were asked to be home with their graduate. (Students who live outside Bergen County were asked to come to the school at their own appointed times.) Each 8th grader was told to be dressed in cap and gown, which had been distributed in advance. At the appointed time, with music blasting, Ms. Chanales danced and greeted each student upon arrival, guiding them on their dramatic walk to the iconic sound of Pomp and Circumstance.
“I am thrilled that each of our graduates had a moment in the spotlight,” Rabbi Hagler said.
“They are all so special and we wanted them to have a memorable graduation experience. Working with this team of volunteers was fantastic. Each of these volunteers brought energy, dedication, and creativity to this initiative.”
A few highlights: Ari Wartelsky prepared 85 comedic “diplomas” and organized the very complicated driving route; Icky Stelzer managed communications and led the on-sight comedy improv; and Chanan Vogel designed the amazing graduation float and the scripted the details of the creative production that accompanied it.
“I was shocked,” Hailey Diamond of Teaneck, 14, said. “I thought Rabbi Hagler would come to our house, stick a lawn sign in my lawn, and hand me a diploma. What I saw when I opened the front door was beyond anything I could have imagined.
“I bet my high school and college graduations won’t be able to top this.”
Much to their amazement, each graduate received a personal message from Rabbi Hagler, an opportunity to speak from the podium (with remarks prepared by the team), a diploma presented by the school’s mascot—the Noam Knight dressed in full PPE (on the first day, Yeshivat Noam alumnus Moshe Mermelstein, Class of 2012, and on the second day, Rabbi Avi Rosalimsky, a Yeshivat Noam teacher), a photo op with a cardboard cutout of Rabbi Hagler (to maintain social distance), several blasts of confetti from Chanan Vogel, and a graduation yard sign with a gift of school swag from Judaic studies principal Rabbi Yitzchok Motechin.
The celebration continued for two full days, winding up and down local streets, until (nearly) all of Yeshivat Noam’s 86 graduates received recognition. (One graduate, who is living out of state now, was not present.) Each ceremony lasted just 10 minutes, but the memories will live on. “Bringing graduation to my home was beyond meaningful,” said 8th grader Nili Kepets of Teaneck, 13. “I was so excited to celebrate with my family and Yeshivat Noam principals and teachers and it was such a surprise!”
“It was completely unexpected,” added her classmate Ilana Gilad, 14. “At the same time, Noam wouldn’t have done anything less for us. That’s just the kind of school that they are. I had so much fun. I couldn’t stop smiling.”
“I will treasure this amazing experience forever because it let me know that even during these difficult times, Yeshivat Noam is willing to go to extreme levels to show how proud they are of me and my classmates,” Sam Wartelsky, 14, said. “I was upset when I learned that we would not be able to have an in-person graduation, but this personal celebration of my graduation surpassed my expectations of what a graduation could be. The only thing missing were my friends.”
Emotional messages from parents flooded an 8th grade WhatsApp chat. Limor Levy, the mother of Yeshivat Noam graduate Josh Levy, said, “I have watched the video of this event over and over and I cry each time from how proud I am to be part of such an amazing school.”
“It was pure magic,” added Esther Katz, the mother of graduate Tani Katz. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime memory they will never forget.”
Chana Stiefel is editor of the Jewish Standard’s Our Children and proud mother of Joshua Stiefel, Yeshivat Noam Class of 2020.