It’s graduation season and I have a confession to make: not only do I sometimes find graduation ceremonies long and boring (I expect I am not alone in this!), when it comes to university graduations, I am a serial non-attender. I failed to attend my own graduation not once but three times. The first time, I had a good excuse. Having just completed my BA (Hons) degree, I was attending a French immersion course in Quebec, 500 miles away from my home university. When it came to my MA and PhD graduations, there weren’t any particularly compelling circumstances that prevented me from going. It just wasn’t a priority.
But I’ve come to see the error of my ways. Like a wedding, baby naming or bat mitzvah, graduation is an important rite of passage. It’s not only a chance to celebrate what each graduate has already accomplished, but — perhaps more importantly– it is also a public acknowledgment of the potential contribution each of them will make to the community and wider society, using the knowledge, skills and qualifications they have worked so hard to achieve. And although all the pomp and ceremony is initially off-putting for some people, I’ve witnessed first-hand how even the most cynical graduates stand a little taller when they put on that academic gown and prepare to ‘process’.
Surprisingly enough, given my personal track record, the annual LSJS graduation ceremony has become one of the highlights of my year. It’s a chance to celebrate the achievements of those who have successfully completed a teacher training programme (leading to the award of ‘Qualified Teacher Status’), and/or an academic degree (undergraduate or graduate) in Jewish Education; these are individuals we fully expect to make a significant contribution to our shared vision of professionalizing and improving Jewish education in the UK and globally. Unlike large universities, where hundreds or even thousands of students may be participating in the same ceremony, each of our graduates is part of a small cohort. The absence of anyone who is unable to attend is keenly felt by their teachers and fellow graduates.
Graduation is also a time to reflect on the growth and development of the institution and its programmes. This summer, for example, we will celebrate the double graduation of some of our first cohort of BA students—those who have successfully managed to complete a four-year degree programme followed by a one-year teacher training programme. This is a wonderful achievement for the individual graduates, and also ‘proof of concept’ for the team that envisioned and planned our BA (Hons.) Jewish Education, shepherded it through the validation process with our partner Middlesex University, and, most importantly, taught and supported our students through their four years of study.
Our first target market for the BA programme was teaching assistants and unqualified Jewish Studies teachers who were working in schools but unable to make further progress in their careers due to their lack of professional qualifications. Educators in this situation in the UK and many other communities face a double-bind—they are unable to enroll on a teacher training qualification without a degree, and unable to leave their employment to pursue full-time study.
We therefore directed our marketing towards people working in schools when we launched the BA in 2014. One of the first students to enroll was working as a secretary in an Orthodox school. With the school’s support, she continued in this role while gradually taking on classroom duties. She successfully completed all the requirements for the BA last summer, before embarking on the final phase of her journey with LSJS towards becoming a fully qualified teacher – a teacher training programme that she was able to complete whilst teaching at the school. In September 2019, after five years of training and study (and a well-deserved summer holiday!), she plans to return to the same school as a fully qualified teacher. It is stories like these that make our annual graduation such a meaningful and moving event.
Our MA Jewish Education caters to a wider range of students, including those working in schools (as school leaders, Jewish Studies teachers, or informal educators), as well as rabbis working in a range of roles (communal rabbi, chaplain, outreach worker), adult educators, and others with a passion for Jewish education. This diversity of background is one of the great strengths of the programme, and, at its best, lends a ‘think-tank’ quality to classroom discussions.
With the support of the Pincus Fund, we have been able to offer the MA via distance learning since January 2018, reaching students in Israel, Europe, North America and South Africa, as well as the UK, so now our students’ experience is enriched by the diversity of communities represented. When these global cohorts complete their studies, we will face the wonderful challenge of arranging a graduation ceremony that brings everyone together, whether in the real or virtual world.
Meanwhile, I have become a passionate advocate for graduations, encouraging our students and my own children to attend their ceremonies and graduation week events–and to bring as many guests as they can, to add to the sense of celebration. Some students don’t need much encouragement. One of this year’s MA graduates replied to the invitation immediately, booking in several guests and adding the comment: “Looking forward to it. I missed my first graduation in 1979 with the Queen Mother at the Albert Hall; there was a rail strike and it was cancelled. So it’s like the Barmitzvah I never had!
Other students, need more persuading. Over the years I’ve encouraged students who lived abroad to invest time and money in travelling to London to attend their graduation—fortunately, they enjoyed the experienced. I used three arguments to get them here: graduation is an important rite of passage for you and your family as well as the community; if you don’t come you may well regret it in the future; and the one time I did go to my own university graduation was one of the happiest days of my life – I hope yours will be too!
Mazal tov to everyone who is celebrating a graduation this summer.
Dr Tamra Wright
Director of Academic Studies and Educator Development
London School of Jewish Studies