How Do We Say “Graduation” in Hebrew?

Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly

She’elah (a question): Eich omrim “Graduation” be’Ivrit? (How do we say “graduation” in Hebrew?)

Ha’T’shuva (the answer): ka’sheh lim’tzoh milah achat. (It is hard to find a ‘one word’ answer.)

In 2004, I finally stood proudly on the stage of San Jose State University to accept my Cum Laude Bachelor’s degree in Music Education. Very few people knew this was my first experience with such a wonderfully orchestrated, official, yet emotional (and long!) ceremony. Here is a “shocker:” As an Israeli, I never had experienced an American-style “Graduation,” and I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

In Israel, the experience of school graduation is different: we may have a party, a yearbook, our parents give us a gift with a hug and say: “Kol Ha’Kavod!” (Similar to “yasher ko-ach!” Go from strength to strength!), and that’s about it. Sometimes, high school graduates would take a trip to Nepal, India, South America, or other countries that we consider “exotic” because they need a little break before beginning the next stage of their lives, their army service. Questions that occupy the young minds of Israeli high school graduates include:

“In which armed force branch will I serve? Air Force? Navy? Cavalry? Shall I be kravi (combat) or jobnik? (Non-combat position, a secretary for example.)

Completion of high school, college (BA) or graduate level programs, are not celebrated with the same grandiose ceremonies as they are here. That is why there isn’t a specific word for graduation in Hebrew, with the same connotation as in the United States.
However, in Israel a magnificent ceremony happens in the army upon finishing weeks of tironut (boot camp: every division of the IDF has its own number of training weeks). There are mits’a’dim (parades, marches), marching bands, special celebratory uniforms, and flags, with everything at the highest level of military presentation. The parents are ferklempt, crying with pride, filled joy and nachas.

I tried to describe to my family in Israel my excitement in graduating SJSU, telling them how amazing the ceremony was, that we all threw our hats in the air, and that there were 5 hours of speeches, etc. They asked, “Like on TV?” I could tell that even though they tried, they couldn’t fully understand what the big deal was! I felt hurt at first, but then I understood.

In Israel, graduating high school means one thing only: “our son/daughter is heading for 2-3 years of army service.” Graduating university means, “Now the real challenge begins: finding a job to support a family.” Somehow an ending of a schooling period does not register with Israelis as “an end,” but only as another step into the next stage of either more schooling or finding a job.

While in modern Israel many universities and colleges (mich’la’lot) have nice graduation ceremonies – we still don’t have a specific word for this occasion, which would translate directly into the word in English portraying “Graduation.” Perhaps this approach stems from the fact that Jews are mandated to keep studying throughout their lives: we value the process and not the accomplishments. We value the essence of learning and not the “goal” because the goal is to “continue to study” all year around for the rest of one’s life. Even though graduation is important and should be celebrated, we acknowledge the accomplishment but not the end (of study).

The Talmud (Berachot 63a) states: “Anyone who is negligent in their Torah study will lack in strength on a day of distress.” This can be understood in two ways: a person who is negligent in Torah (teaching and learning) will lack in their strength of character and will not be able to withstand the difficulties when challenges require us to come up with intelligent, learned solutions. Or, we can learn that a person who is negligent in their Torah study (expanding one’s horizons) will lack necessary qualities on a day of distress and danger and will not be able to survive.

When I graduated both programs from the Academy for Jewish Religion CA (AJRCA) with Masters, Cantorial as well as Rabbinic degrees, I didn’t even try to explain to my family in Israel the tremendous value these events held for me. Instead, I simply invited them to watch it via Skype.

As we enter the “season of graduations,” from High School to College, from Middle School to High School, from Kindergarten to First Grade etc. – I am filled with a sense of nachas: this year, for the first time, I’ll get to take part in the graduation of our 4 Temple Beth Tikvah Religious School graduates, who kept up with their Jewish education thru 12th Grade. During my last sessions with these Fab Four young men: Adam Lang, Matthew Schwed, David Skolnick, and Scott Moroch, I must admit that I have had a real sense of “missing out.” This past year I got to know them a bit, but not nearly enough. Nonetheless I became so fond and impressed with the quality of their character and greatness of their souls. This feeling is accompanied by a mixed sense of pride and regret that I didn’t get to ‘hang out’ with them more at our Temple.

I also want to congratulate our 10th graders, who will soon become Confirmands, and our 7th graders, most whom have already had their Bat/Bar Mitzvah celebrations. With this past year of transitions, I regret that we didn’t get to spend more time together. Nonetheless, I am hoping that next year this will change, and you will all come back for our newly forming Youth Program. 7th graders: your Jewish journey has just begun, and I am so looking forward to getting to know each of you and your family members during the next five years of your future Jewish education at our joint program with Shomrei Torah. 10th graders: our new combined high school is sure to bring new opportunities for fun, education and exciting adventures. Join us!

And as I am about to have my own little “graduation” celebration (completing one year cycle as Temple Beth Tikvah’s rabbi!), I want to say how grateful I am to each and every one of you who have been so helpful, accommodating, kind, and supportive of Dave and me as we have begun our joint journey with this wonderful community, our House of Hope, Beth Tikvah. I truly feel blessed and so fortunate to have been accepted into your midst. On behalf of Dave and myself, we want to say, “Thank you, todah rabah.”

I will end with one of my all-time favorite quotes, which reflects how I feel about the process of teaching and learning: it is not a Jewish quote per se, but inspiring to me nonetheless:

“Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.”
—Benjamin Franklin

Happy chapter-closings, happy beginnings, happy graduations, and happy summer!!

Your loving Rabbi Meeka, May 2017

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