‘We blew it’ planning graduation for Shabbat

Beth Feldman serves as the president of the Parkway Board of Education.  She is in her 10th year serving on the board, her fourth as president.  She is the only Jewish member of the board and attends United Hebrew Congregation.

By Beth Feldman

In our desire to make the graduation experience better for all, the Parkway School Board and administration inadvertently lost sight of the needs of our Jewish students, each as important as any other, and their proud families who had waited for their graduation day with great anticipation.  

By scheduling our four high school graduations on Shabbat and Erev Shavuot, we made it impossible for some of our seniors to attend their own graduation. In short, we blew it.  And we are sorry, profoundly so, that our insensitivity caused anyone discomfort or any feelings of not belonging.

When making decisions for a diverse and large community such as Parkway, there are many considerations. The main ones included adequate seating and parking, safety, physical access, graduation celebrations and fiscal responsibility.  The board looks for solutions that are best for students. But in the case of graduations, we have to take a step back and consider what is best for families.

We let space, ease of access, amenities and convenience be the guiding force behind our decision to move to the St. Charles Family Arena because we cared about the graduation experience for all who attend. But the available date was a Saturday.  Despite the warnings of some of the rabbis with whom we consulted, we grossly failed to realize the importance of honoring the religious practices of those observant families whose students would not be able to attend or participate. We failed to see that even Jewish families who weren’t as strict in their Shabbat observance would be insulted and hurt by our scheduling something so important on Shabbat.

A few years ago, a Parkway graduation date fell on Shavuot and some members of the senior class were unable to attend because of religious observance.  We honored those students at a board meeting and thought that would be sufficient again.  But, we were very wrong.  

Something in society had changed, making many Jews feel singled out for their faith instead of included in our diverse world.  Some people claimed anti-Semitism and, in the age of social media, those accusations spread like wildfire.  A student started a petition asking Parkway to change the graduation date and, in turn, some turned on her in a vicious way.  When did it become acceptable to turn on each other before trying to collaborate and solve problems?

Voices also were asking us to keep the graduations on Saturday.  They offered many sensible reasons but, like the district, failed to respect the importance of religious observance.  

Thankfully, amid the loud voices labeling this decision anti-Semitism, there were a few calm ones recognizing this was more a misjudgment that could be settled with some respectful discussion.  And, truly, that was the case.  After meeting with Jewish leaders, the district superintendent, board president and vice president realized that by holding graduations on a Saturday, some students would be forced to miss their own graduations, and many of their classmates would skip graduation to show support.  These students in particular were demonstrating how much they cared by this selfless act.

Each opinion is valid and important to us. That is one reason why we struggle with almost every major decision we make, because valid points are raised from differing perspectives.  

We often talk about teachable moments.  In this case, it was our students and their families that helped teach the decision-makers a valuable lesson.  And we’re very proud of one of our students, who started a petition to change the date of the graduations because she felt that the decision was incorrect and unfair. 

The board will continue to listen to all voices and discuss options including finding different days for the ceremonies.  We may not be able to come to a conclusion that meets the needs of each and every Parkway student and family, but please know your voices have been heard and we try our very best.

We will share the plans for the 2018 graduation ceremonies as soon as we are able.