On my college graduation day, I expected to pop champagne on the front steps of Washington University’s Brookings Hall in my cap and gown. After making a massive mess, I would sit down with my friends to reflect on four years of road trips, Shabbat dinners and late-night conversations.
Instead, I sat in front of my trusty laptop at a kitchen table, my eyes glazing over as I watched my four years play back in a prerecorded graduation video.
For the past three months, my mind has been split between the present and the what-if, fantasizing over lost moments while trying to make the best of this one. I know I’m not the only graduate struggling to remain optimistic.
Other Jewish high school and college seniors in St. Louis face similar uncertainties, but they are committed to creating meaningful quarantine moments and remain cautiously hopeful about the future.
Eli Lederman, 22, was all set to cover the Cardinals for MLB.com after graduating from the University of Missouri- Columbia with a degree in journalism. On March 26, Major League Baseball’s scheduled opening day, he announced on social media that he snagged the role. The next day, he got a call from MLB.com. He lost his job offer.
Lederman is now back to networking, hoping to make connections that could lead to a new opportunity.
“My goal is to be on as many people’s radars as possible and hope for the best,” he said.
Jenna Gold was supposed to graduate from Ladue Horton Watkins High School on May 17, but the day came and went without a celebration.
“I don’t really consider myself having graduated yet because I haven’t gotten a diploma,” she said. “We didn’t have an online ceremony or anything.”
The school is planning an August graduation ceremony, so Gold is holding out for that. In the fall, she will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Clayton High School senior Leo Goodfriend, 18, also is waiting for an in-person graduation later this summer. He hopes for the chance to play on Clayton’s redone baseball field and for word on what his first year at Indiana University might look like.
“I’m doing fine, but it’s just boring,” Goodfriend said of quarantine. “It’s mostly just anxiety over the potential of having to be stuck here for even longer.”
A letter from the president of Indiana University spelled out the possibilities: entirely in-person, entirely virtual or a mix of the two, perhaps with students rotating between going to class and taking classes online.
But Goodfriend has tried to make the most of quarantine.
Every Friday at 8:20 p.m. – 2020 in military time – Clayton High turns on the lights at its football field for 20 minutes and 20 seconds and lets seniors like Goodfriend hang out in the parking lot, properly social distanced.
Goodfriend has also joined Central Reform Congregation’s celebratory Zoom call,which he said is especially meaningful because the son of CRC Rabbi Randy Fleisher, Gabe Fleisher, is also a graduating senior.
In quarantine, Fleisher, 18, sometimes wakes up to his dad playing his guitar downstairs for virtual services. He’s used to it now.
The John Burroughs School senior, who plans to attend Georgetown University in the fall, has spent quarantine continuing his own projects. He releases the daily political newsletter “Wake Up to Politics,” which has grown to 50,000 subscribers worldwide since he started it at age 9, and its audio counterpart, the Wake Up to Politics podcast for St. Louis Public Radio.
“There’s never been a more important time for people to stay informed, for people to know what’s going on and for people to have accurate and reliable sources they can trust,” Fleisher said. “I’m really proud to be able to offer that to my readers.”
It has been radio silence from Georgetown on plans for the fall.
“It’s just a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questions, wondering what will be happening next,” Fleisher said.
St. Louis native Jason Weber, who lives in Evanston, Ill., feels the same. The company where he will start working,consulting firm Strategy&, has shuffled around start dates, and Weber is tentatively scheduled to begin next January. His college, Northwestern University, postponed its graduation ceremony until June 2021. But Weber keeps it in perspective.
“A lot of people have been asking, ‘How does it feel that your graduation got cut, you must be so bummed,’ ” he said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course I’m bummed. I worked super hard for this moment.’ But at the end of the day, a ceremony only means so much, and at the same time, you have to recognize when you’re up against something bigger than you.
“My expectations and worries and anxieties before were more micro. I think what corona and the whole pandemic has shifted is they’ve become more macro-level worries. You go from, ‘I hope I like my coworkers’ to ‘I hope my job is still there.’ ”
During quarantine, Weber and three friends went on a road trip from Seattle to their Evanston home,visiting outdoor tourist destinations such as Mount Rushmore along the way.
With professional sports on pause, Lederman has turned to new activities. He participated in a writing competition, caught up on reading and TV shows, and hopped on the quarantine banana bread-making trend.
He has reconnected with his home synagogue and regularly attends virtual Friday night services.
“It was sort of still a piece of normalcy in all of this to have the Friday night service,” he said. “My Judaism will remain a guiding light.”
Goodfriend is also considering what his next steps with Judaism might look like. He is involved with CRC and the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, and he hopes to integrate into Indiana University’s Jewish community.
Weber, who has always been involved with Jewish activities, from Jewish summer camp to Northwestern’s Jewish Greek Life Association, now needs to create his own Jewish connections.
“For the first time, it’s going to be up to me how I want to embrace and involve myself with the Jewish community,” he said.
For now, Weber is planning some more outdoors trips.
Gold will start the Kode with Klossy two-week coding camp begun by St. Louis native and supermodel Karlie Kloss, which will run online this year, as well as help a friend make masks for Washington University’s youth center.
Fleisher is continuing his Wake Up to Politics outlets. Lederman and Goodfriend are hoping baseball will return soon, while finding ways to be productive in the interim.
And I have been writing, baking and attending Zoom workout classes, trying to make the most of a situation I never imagined.
I have a folder on my computer desktop called Happy Zooms. It reminds me of the good that has come out of the bad. It’s filled with screenshots capturing my Zoom graduation ceremony for my major, and moments laughing uncontrollably with my friends over Zoom backgrounds.
I don’t know what’s next. But talking with my fellow seniors gives me confidence that the class of 2020 — and all of us, really — can emerge from the pandemic with a greater appreciation for the things that make life great, and perhaps a banana bread or two.