Rabbi Shaya Cohen with guest of honor Mr. David Devor
Rabbi Shaya Cohen with guest of honor Mr. David Devor
Rabbi Shaya Cohen with guest of honor Mr. David Devor

By Avraham Burger

The Priority‑1 dinner is my favorite dinner on the “dinner calendar” each year. Now granted, I am a bit biased, considering that I am employed by Priority‑1; however, even looking through my rose-colored glasses, there is a key difference that takes this event to another level.

It’s not the food, although Sharmel Caterers does a phenomenal job of providing a delicious smorgasbord to delight any palate. And it is not the ambience, although the crowd is great and the program is quick! It’s not even the honorees, although we have been blessed each year with individuals of outstanding character, including this year’s honorees, Mr. and Mrs. David Devor and Mr. and Mrs. Aron Tzvi Robinson.

The real difference-maker is the tradition of having the Priority‑1 high school graduation at our annual dinner and paying tribute to our graduates. The last part of the program, the graduation offers a brief window into a single, special moment in the lives of these young men. We can watch as they transition from their high-school years to whatever comes next, whether it is learning in Israel, going to college, or anything else.

We can look back on years past with a sense of pride and accomplishment, knowing we have helped them reach this achievement. And we can look forward with hope and excitement as we watch their growth into the future.

This tradition began a few years ago, when the principals of the high school felt that their students deserved a graduation on a grander scale than what they had to offer, being a small school with a small student body and graduating class. They felt that the students deserved more recognition, more honor and respect for their accomplishments than a “standard” graduation ceremony would afford.

Why? To an outsider it may seem silly or misplaced to aggrandize the sense of accomplishment of young men that are simply completing high school. Sure, for any student’s parents it is a special moment, a special time to see a peak in their efforts to raise their child, but to most others it is a relatively ordinary occurrence. Is the Priority‑1 graduation really so special? Why are these boys more important than the thousands of other graduates that complete high school each year?

Let me tell you the story of Moshe B. (his name has been changed), a local boy that was a graduate from Priority‑1’s high school a few years ago.

Sixteen-year-old Moshe was caught drinking (alcohol) and was thrown out of his second high school. His parents tried to convince the principal to let him stay, promising that his behavior would change, but their pleas were to no avail . . . and Moshe slipped further and further away from religious observance and began to exhibit increasingly worse behavior.

Arriving in Priority‑1’s Torah Academy high school in eleventh grade, Moshe’s behavior deteriorated and he seemed lost. However, after a few short months small changes began to be seen. Rebbeim and school therapists spent long hours talking to Moshe, building up his confidence and teaching him to believe in his own abilities and self-worth.

The work was hard and some days Moshe would find the challenges too difficult, but he kept at it and persevered. Gradually, Moshe found his place and began to harness the potential he had inside all along. Two years after enrolling in Priority‑1, Moshe graduated from high school, a proud young man with a bright future ahead of him.

Moshe is now learning in a yeshiva in Israel and his parents couldn’t be prouder. The difference between Moshe’s graduation and any other graduation is the amount of work it took to get from point A to point B. Some children struggle to achieve what may be perceived as “normal.” In many respects, their regular accomplishment can require extraordinary efforts to overcome unusual roadblocks that other children don’t experience. When a child struggles to succeed or to excel in any area of their life, we, as parents, educators, and community members, should applaud their progress, growth, and accomplishments.

The graduates of our high school are all normal boys. They live regular lives and come from families living in our communities. They attend the same schools as everyone else . . . until one day they don’t. One day they are expelled, excluded, and often alienated. The reasons vary as widely as there are individual personalities. From divorce and family tragedy, to molestation, learning disabilities, biological causes, and bullying, to being too smart or too dumb, too big or too strange, there are myriad reasons why a child may go “off the derech” or become “at risk” and stray from the direction of their family, of their friends, and of their community. Many of our boys are extremely smart and sensitive, which can magnify the difficulty of dealing with adverse life situations. Whether it is nature or nurture (usually it is some combination of both) that is causing the child’s issues, there is always one common denominator: they all have the potential to succeed.

No matter how many schools a child has been expelled from or how many times he has been kicked out of his home, he still craves acceptance and love. He still desires respect and achievement. And oftentimes when these young men are given that love and given an opportunity to succeed, the results can be miraculous.

The witness of the culmination of years of hard work, years of overcoming challenges, years of ups-and-downs, is an inspirational sight to behold and is the real reason this dinner and graduation was so special. It is the real reason I and many others stuck it out until the end of the dinner (although the Viennese dessert table was a nice bonus as well).

The nonprofit world is often a tough place to work. The pay is not generally great and there aren’t many perks, but there are moments like these when we know we have positively impacted the lives of these young men and hopefully set them on a course of success and growth for years to come.

Moshe’s story is a remarkable triumph of hard work and dedicated professional help to overcome obstacles on the path to high-school graduation and a return to Yiddishkeit. But there are many more boys out there in need of our help.

Last week, the Priority‑1 26th anniversary dinner featured the graduation of the fourteenth class of the Priority‑1’s high school. Each graduate has his own story, his own obstacles to overcome, and his own goals and aspirations he aims to achieve. It was truly an inspirational moment for me, and I ask you to join me in making these moments a reality for many more young men in the future.

At the dinner, an anonymous local philanthropist was so touched that he approached Rabbi Shaya Cohen immediately after the graduation and offered $50,000 as a matching grant to help raise money for Priority‑1. Every boy that graduates is an entire world changed, an entire world reoriented towards success, reinvigorated with life and Yiddishkeit. Please help Priority‑1 continue to create truly special moments for young men desperately in need of more recognition and respect for their tremendous accomplishments.

Please visit www.priority‑1.org or call 516-295-5700, ext. 10, for more information or to become a partner in Priority‑1’s efforts. v

Avraham Burger is the administrative director of Priority‑1.


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