Wrong Way, Parkway

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Parkway School District’s decision to hold all four of its high school graduation ceremonies on a Saturday next May teaches a very bad lesson at a very tense time.

It’s a bad lesson because graduation day should be a time where everyone comes together in a spirit of pride for accomplishment and anticipation of what lies ahead. No high school senior should feel left out because of a wrongheaded move that leaves Jewish students who observe the Sabbath out in the cold.

And the change comes at a particularly bad time, nationwide. With the hateful, anti-Semitic shouts from Charlottesville still fresh in everyone’s mind, no public school district should make a move that tells Jewish students that their heritage and their faith are not important. If anything, Parkway and all public school districts should be going out of their way to teach inclusion, not approving policies that brand one group as outsiders.

Compounding the issue that the ceremonies would be held on a Saturday is the fact that this year, on the date chosen by the district, May 19, Shavuot begins at sundown.

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When opposition to the decision became public, including an online petition (http://bit.ly/parkway-petition) started by Parkway Central student Hannah Maurer, district officials began looking into the possibility of a change; a spokesman for the district said it hopes to have a decision soon. 

The petition had garnered nearly 2,000 signatures as of Tuesday. That support for a more sensible solution should prompt Parkway to reconsider and show that it values all of its students, not just certain groups.

Problems with the Saturday date were made clear to members of the Parkway School Board by Rabbis James Bennett of Shaare Emeth and Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew. 

“They were putting all these concerns about convenience ahead of the morals and principals and values that the district has emphasized so strongly in their curriculum,” Bennett said. His three children all graduated from Parkway Central.

And Rosenberg’s daughter Zoe is set to graduate from Parkway in May. “I don’t know what our family will decide to do,” she said.

Parkway school board president and United Hebrew congregant Beth Feldman said the change was designed to make it easier for families to get in and out of the ceremonies, a process that is difficult at Queeny Park, where graduations have been held in recent years. Plus, the Family Arena is bigger, eliminating the need for tickets.

She said the district was surprised by the depth of opposition to the change.

“We as a school board and school district have a very broad perspective of all the things that we have to take into consideration when we make this kind of decision,” she said, “and we were trying to do the best that we could with what we have to work with, and what we did did not work out.”

She also acknowledged the timing was bad, given the tone of debate nationwide, and didn’t want to see anyone feel excluded or feel the need to have an alternative ceremony on a day other than Saturday.

“There is a rise in anti-Semitism,” Feldman said, “and I think people don’t want to be separated because of their faith. They want to be included, just like everyone else, and I as a Reform Jew misjudged that.

“The thing that I had trouble understanding is the number of people who felt personally wronged by this decision. There was no bad intent.”

No matter what the intent, the result should not have made Jewish families in Parkway choose between commencement and the Sabbath.  The district’s goal – to standardize and centralize graduation ceremonies for all of its high school graduates – isn’t necessarily a bad one. 

But if the only date available for next May at the Family Arena is a Saturday, the district should postpone the consolidated ceremonies for a year, or come up with a different day. Parkway graduates and their families deserve no less.