Yair Naftalin-Kelman spoke at the Berkeley School Board meeting in February to urge them to listen to Jewish families.
Yair Naftalin-Kelman spoke at the Berkeley School Board meeting in February to urge them to listen to Jewish families.

Berkeley High graduation on Shabbat despite years of pleas

In early February, 17-year-old Yair Naftalin-Kelman took to the podium at a meeting of the Berkeley Unified School Board. Wearing his kippah, as he does every day, Yair told the board that as it stands now, he will not be able to attend his own graduation in the spring.

“I am an observant Jew, and Berkeley High graduation is held on a Saturday,” the high school senior said.

Yair’s speech came after four years of efforts by Jewish families to move Berkeley High School’s graduation from a Saturday schedule.

Up until spring 2018, the ceremony had been held on a Friday at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. In fall 2018 when a location and date change were announced, Yair was in eighth grade and looking ahead to high school.

Knowing Yair would be attending Berkeley High, his parents — Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, UC Berkeley Hillel executive director, and Elana Naftalin-Kelman, an S.F. State lecturer — anticipated the problem that a Saturday graduation would create when their son was a senior, so they contacted the administration.

Naftalin-Kelman family. From left to right in back, Yair, Elana, Adam. Youngest children in front.
The Naftalin-Kelman family, with Yair on the left.

“We reached out to the principal and the superintendent to meet with them just to say, listen, our son is not even at Berkeley High yet, but we want to explain to you some of the complicated nature [of the situation] and understand why it got moved,” Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman said.

The family was told that the change was due to scheduling issues between the high school and UC Berkeley, he said, and that the conversation would continue.

Since then, the family has met five times with members of the BHS administration and Berkeley Unified School Board. They have also exchanged more than a dozen emails with former and current principals and superintendents, with no resolution.

Last October, after meeting with new Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel to discuss the issue, as well as describe the experience of Jewish students and families in the district, Rabbi Naftalin-Kelman sent the superintendent a 41-page document titled “Report of Major Themes of Jewish Families in BUSD and Next Steps” The report includes testimony from 47 Jewish families with students in the district, and notes that while most families are largely happy, they’ve never felt “fully included” as Jews. They cite issues such as their student being penalized for missing school for Jewish holidays, a lack of understanding of Jewish culture, and instances of antisemitism.

“Several families that have been in BUSD for over 10 years shared a sense of frustration with a lack of any material action taken about addressing these issues,” the report read. “Throughout their time in BUSD, administration listened to the parents and showed empathy, yet nothing ever resulted from those meetings.”

Then, on Jan. 12, two months after meeting with the superintendent and with little response the school or district, the Naftalin-Kelmans said, they received an email telling them that graduation 2023 would be held on June 3 — a Saturday — at the high school stadium.

A few weeks later, at the Feb. 1 school board meeting, Elana Naftalin-Kelman shared that she and her husband chose BUSD for Yair and his brother Nevo, and eventually their youngest son, Etai, because of the district’s stated commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“For the last five years we have requested and continue to request, now before you all sitting here, for BUSD to change the date of graduation to not be on the Jewish Sabbath so as to be inclusive of BUSD students of all religions,” she told the board.

Headshot of Adriana Lombard Director of Public Education at JCRC. Courtesy Lombard.
Adriana Lombard of JCRC

Meanwhile, Adriana Lombard, who since March 2022 has served as the director of public education at the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, said she’s been working  behind the scenes with the school district, the Naftalin-Kelmans and other families. Part of Lombard’s job is to support the needs of Jewish families in public schools. No other Bay Area high school that she knows of has scheduled a Saturday graduation, Lombard said.

Rena Dorph, who directs the Lawrence Hall of Science, an interactive public science museum at UC Berkeley, also has a senior graduating from BHS this spring. Like the Naftalin-Kelmans, Dorph’s family observes Shabbat. If graduation is held on a Saturday, Dorph said, her family might be able to walk to the event, but her child will not have the traditional graduation experience. The family cannot take pictures, relatives will not be able to attend, and the day will not look the same.

“While my kids understand that they make up a subset of Jews and a small minority of the whole population, equity should be about removing thematic and systemic barriers to participation, opportunities and outcomes,” Dorph said.

Ford Morthel, who became superintendent in July 2022, told J. that efforts were made to accommodate Jewish families in graduation activities, but that a date change for the ceremony was not possible this year.

Headshot of Rena Dorph, mother of a BHS senior.
Rena Dorph, mother of a BHS senior.

She cited fiscal and staffing constraints and difficulty coordinating over 800 graduating students. Graduation is usually planned at the beginning of the school year and there was not enough time to make changes for 2023 graduation — despite the fact that the Naftalin-Kelmans have been advocating for a date change for years, she said.

Though BHS administrators were not able to move the date of the all-school ceremony, Ford Morthel said, they were able to move the graduation of the learning community Yair is a part of to a Tuesday. BHS holds individual graduation ceremonies for learning communities, academic tracks within the larger high school that students join in their freshman year.

Ford Morthel said she looks forward to continuing to work with the Naftalin-Kelmans, and hopes to be able to be more accommodating to Jewish families in the coming years.

“We are really trying our best to figure out how to do better for future year graduations,” Ford Morthel said. “Now we have a head start in understanding those issues and figuring out how to mitigate them.”

Yair said he has been largely satisfied with his time at Berkeley High, which has about 3,000 students, but if he could speak to the administration again, he said he would share what it felt like to miss track meets and field trips because of his religious observance, and the antisemitism he has faced from some of his peers.

“I would try to educate the teachers and the administration more about what actually goes on with the Jewish students in Berkeley Unified,” he said.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.