Jewish families and community members gather outside the BUSD boardroom on Wednesday to advocate for graduation to be moved to avoid the Sabbath. Credit: Ally Markovich

Berkeley High graduation will remain on Saturday this year, despite advocacy from members of the Jewish community and their supporters who packed the Berkeley school board’s meeting room this week and signed a petition asking the board to move graduation to another day to avoid the Sabbath.

School board directors listened sympathetically Wednesday night and promised to try to avoid holding graduation on the Sabbath starting next year, but didn’t budge on this year’s graduation date.

It was a last-ditch effort after five years of advocacy by Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, who heads UC Berkeley Hillel, and his wife, Elana, a special education professor at San Francisco State. The family began meeting with district administrators in 2018, when Berkeley High graduation changed from Friday to Saturday, but the conversations went nowhere. The Naftalin-Kelmans say they were told most people wanted graduation to be on Saturday.

This year, they ramped up their efforts, mobilizing friends and community members to stand behind them so observant Jews, including their son, Yair, could attend Berkeley High graduation in June. Three Berkeley rabbis sent letters in support, about 20 people showed up for public comment Wednesday and 250 people signed the petition. 

“Observing this weekly day of rest has given shape to my life and it has taught me so many important lessons,” Yair told school board directors at a meeting in February, speaking about the lessons he has learned straddling two worlds. “But leaving a part of my life behind for one day every week has also been challenging. Graduation is not the first event I have had to miss.”

The Jewish Sabbath, also called Shabbat, is a day of rest: Jews who observe don’t drive or use technology from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Most area school districts hold graduation on weekdays, including Albany, Alameda, Oakland Tech, Emeryville and Richmond. 

“BUSD is one of the only districts in our region that is excluding observant Jewish families in this way,” wrote Rabbi Rebekah Stern, a senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El.

The district told the families it was too late to change graduation this year, citing logistical and financial reasons, though they did offer to move graduation for Yair’s small school, Academic Choice, to Tuesday. “We continue to remind the school board that this graduation this year excludes Jewish observant families from fully participating and fully being present,” Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman said at the end of the night. 

City auditor Jenny Wong speaks during the BUSD board meeting to ask school board directors to move graduation to another day. Credit: Ally Markovich

Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel, who started at BUSD in July, promised to do everything in the district’s power to make sure that graduation does not fall on a Saturday going forward, and to work to make other district events more inclusive. 

“I totally empathize and hear the frustration of the families who have been asking for this for years,” she said.

Elana Naftalin-Kelman said she was disheartened that district leaders only agreed to try changing the graduation date only after significant community pushback, a decision she said made her wary that the process for making change at BUSD does not include those without the resources or time to do the same.

“We tried to request what we achieved quietly, going through the channels that we thought were most appropriate,” she said through tears during the meeting Wednesday night. “It took public comment, newspaper articles, social media and community uproar to make a change.” 

Among the people who urged the board to move the date were city auditor Jenny Wong and former school board director Judy Appell, who said one of the district’s core values — inclusivity — was at stake. 

“We should make every effort to be an inclusive district,” agreed school board director Vasudeo, who said she committed to working toward full inclusion next year. 

Elia, a 4th grader whose older brother will graduate this year, also took the microphone, telling board directors that the district’s decision to hold graduation on Saturday made her feel “ignored and that my family and culture are not valued by BUSD.”

Some Jewish students and families said that the graduation date is just one of several ways they don’t feel fully included at BUSD, from lack of representation to antisemitism and microaggressions. 

“As a Jewish student in BUSD, I have always felt that Jews aren’t recognized. It’s just from the books I read [in school] … there are rarely Jewish stories or Jewish characters,” Elia said.

Last year, the Naftalin-Kelmans compiled a report from about 50 survey responses from Jewish families documenting how BUSD could better support Jewish students. Some students experienced antisemitism at school and families said there were few accommodations for students who had to miss school and tests during Jewish holidays. Others said the BUSD curriculum fell short in terms of representing Jewish identities.

BUSD’s decision comes shortly after Jewish families criticized San Francisco Unified for not reaching out to them for input when adjusting its spring break schedule to align with Ramadan. The families wanted the district to consider adding Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana to its list of scheduled holidays. 

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...