Did I miss something?"
Adam Teitelbaum wasn't sure why everyone was laughing. He stared out at the 800 guests, shrugged his shoulders and looked behind him for a clue from the 46 other graduates. They shrugged right back at him.
"When I am an old man," he had just intoned, "and have high school children of my own...."
The laughter came in waves, quieting then renewing each time parents, teachers and friends caught a glimpse of the unrelieved incomprehension on the graduates' faces.
When the crowd settled, Teitelbaum continued on with his warm and emotional talk, a piece of anticipated nostalgia about what the class of 2006 of New Community Jewish High School would tell their progeny about what it was like to be pioneers, to be the very first graduating class at a hugely successful startup Jewish high school.
The paradox of the Teitelbaum moment was just perfect: Even as these graduates could touch the future with their fingertips, anything past this moment seemed an unfathomably distant snapshot. When you are an 18-year-old standing up on the dais, mortarboard riveted to your head with 10,000 bobby pins, crimson gown billowing out over a carefully chosen dress and heels, or barely hiding the jeans and sneakers you somehow got away with -- at that moment, nothing else exists. Nothing but you, your sobbing or whooping or high-fiving friends, your teary-eyed parents and the teachers you are suddenly hugging.
And how much more so when you are graduating from New Jew, and when you are among the 47 students who took the chance and dove head first into a new venture.
It was a risk that paid off.
The school opened in 2002 at the Milken campus of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, with 40 students in the ninth grade and Dr. Bruce Powell, veteran founder of successful Jewish high schools, at the helm. By the next year, 108 students had enrolled in ninth and 10th grade, then 180, then 240 and by this fall the school expects to have 320 students at the Shomrei Torah Synagogue campus in West Hills that it has occupied since 2004.
In just four years, New Jew, which has successfully accommodated and integrated all denominations, has grown to offer courses in seven languages -- including Yiddish and American Sign Language. It participates in a student exchange through The Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership; it fields competitive teams in lacrosse, baseball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, cross-country, golf and soccer; it has an art department that includes Jewish arts, instrumental and choral music, photography, dance, drama and film; and it offers an intensive Torah study tract, a full listing of AP classes and a science academy. This year, after a rigorous self-study and auditing, the school won a coveted six-year accreditation from Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
So what explains this success?
As the graduates tell it -- and four graduate speeches, not excessive adult blathering, formed the bulk of the graduation ceremony -- New Jew is a place to build self-confidence and to gain skills to uncover and then pursue your passions.
Elan Feldman, student council president for three years (that can happen when you are always the oldest class in the school) spoke of the leadership he has learned.
"Through its commitment to New Community Jewish High School, the Jewish community has furthered its commitment to raise a generation of educated, responsible, socially aware and active Jews, ready to assume the responsibility of leadership wherever their personal passions may reside," Feldman told the crowd gathered in Shomrei Torah's main sanctuary for the May 31 graduation.
The school encourages students to live what they are learning, supporting their ideas and plans for new groups. That is how this class gave birth to a campaign to stop the genocide in Darfur, enlisting dozens of other high schools; that's why New Jew students became mentors to middle school kids, teaching them how to become advocates for social justice; it's why students created an Israel advocacy group, launched a literary magazine and decided to help kids in economically challenged areas of Los Angeles.
The camaraderie these students have built -- among themselves and with the faculty -- is palpable, giving credence to Powell's mantra that New Jew is about creating A-Plus human beings, about advanced placement kindness.
Shira Shane, founder of Teens Against Genocide and a top student in the class, dedicated her speech to describing the characteristics that make up the class of 2006 -- and each poetically rendered example, it became clear, referred specifically to a fellow student. The graduates and their teachers caught the references, nodding and smiling in each others' direction.
There were no individual awards for this senior class.
"The best is the enemy of the good," Powell said. Awards -- which at this point don't help the kids get into any colleges or guide them on any path -- simply make those who don't get them feel bad. It creates hubris, he said, and defies the notion that all are created in the image of God.
So the students, rather than celebrate individual accomplishments, celebrated their collective personality -- as a free-spirited, rebellious class.
Talya Vogel described a moment at the school retreat when the seniors were supposed to pass the mantle to the junior class in a candle ceremony. But after the seniors had transferred their flames to the juniors' candles and then extinguished their own wicks, the seniors balked, relighting their candles.
"And the fire spread throughout the senior class; every single senior candle relit. We showed them we are not burnt out; we are not going out without a fight," she said. "We marched toward the campfire, candles lit, singing songs of self-possession and triumph and resonance."
It is a conquering, go-forward attitude that indicates that the students have preemptively answered Powell's signature challenge: "Will you dare disturb the universe?"
At the end of the ceremony, the graduates predictably pulled off their caps and tossed them into the air, a shower of oversized confetti pelting the graduates as the caps fell.
But one cap stayed up.
It clung to the ceiling, the strings of the tassels tangled in the border of the acoustic tiles.
The graduates pointed and laughed, tried futilely to reach for the lingering cap but then gave up, turning to the more important business of the recessional, hugging everyone in sight and looking out over the crowd for their parents.
So the cap hung there, not willing to let go of the moment where the future is at hand, but the present is so much stronger.
But alas, a parent came and released the cap from its bondage, wanting, no doubt, to return it to its owner for just a few a more pictures and a lifelong keepsake. Graduation, after all, has to end, and the future must draw near.
But the cap had made its point.
These graduates, the dangling hat seemed to say, would always hover above New Community Jewish High School, the pioneering class of 2006.