May 20, 2022

COVID-19 postponed my college reunion – opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I was in such a hurry to make aliyah long ago that I missed my graduation from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. But now I have a second chance, 50 years later. Actually 51. Postponed because of COVID-19.

In 1971, after a decade called the ’60s in which pomp and circumstance were downgraded in favor of demonstrations and sit-ins, attending a formal cap and gown graduation didn’t seem important. But having passed my own sixties, I’ve become more nostalgic and sentimental.
My late mother, a college graduate herself, always warned me against reunions because “everyone looks so old.” I had just the opposite reaction five years ago when I attended my high school reunion and reconnected with my classmates in Colchester, Connecticut. Because I’m Shabbat-observant, my public school classmates scheduled their always-on-Saturday reunion at a hotel so I could check in on Friday. I loved reconnecting with those with whom I’d gone to kindergarten through the 12th grade, and have kept in touch since. I was glad we looked older. Far too many classmates had died.

That feeling was exacerbated at this reunion, as we young-spirited grandparents were suddenly categorized as the vulnerable in the pandemic. One event of the “50 plus 1” reunion was a memorial service for those who’d died.

Unlike my high school class of fewer than 70 teens, there were more than 1,600 graduates of my class at Penn. Fortunately, as life moved to Zoom over the pandemic, I joined the class committee for monthly meetings at their 4 p.m., and my 11 p.m. For over two years I connected with this subset of alumni who, in addition to planning the reunion, did monthly
My friend and classmate, Mona Yudkoff, who lives in Philadelphia, booked campus hotel reservations for us, first for May 2021, and then again for May 2022. We were surprised and pleased when the university announced it was a go and they would happily welcome hundreds of septuagenarian alumni on commencement week alongside the newly minted 2022 graduates.

Our old guard events in Philadelphia began with a bus tour of the campus guided by a professor of architecture. I hadn’t realized that many of the buildings and row houses dated back to the American Civil War. Certain familiar edifices have been replaced by futuristic towers, as the campus has stretched outward and upward. The university is still wrangling with the issue that ignited the campus in my day, of how to create an amiable interface with West Philadelphia, where gentrification is a threat to the poor population despite resulting job opportunities and school improvement.

In 2022, the worthy hero of the University of Pennsylvania remains founder Benjamin Franklin, who, in addition to inventing the lightning rod, bifocals and the Franklin stove, came up with the idea of creating a public university. In 1749, when Penn was founded, the four colleges that existed in the English colonies – Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, and Princeton – were schools for educating clergy. Penn would be open to all.

Moses Levy was the first Jewish student, enrolling in 1802, and subsequently became the first Jewish trustee of the university. Today, Jews make ups some 17% of the student body, and are very well represented in campus philanthropy – to name but a few, the Perelman Quadrangle and School of Medicine, Claudia Cohen Hall, and the Weitzman School of Design – not our Israeli Weizmann but the shoe entrepreneur Stuart. There’s a beautiful large Hillel House, and kosher food is always available, also throughout the reunion.

Franklin, known not only for his inventiveness and his wise sayings, also had his own impact on Jewish life when his self-improvement method was translated by Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanov (1749-1826), later admired and reputedly adapted by Rabbi Israel Salanter of the Musar movement.

WALKING DOWN Philadelphia streets named Walnut, Chestnut and Spruce, and along verdant Locust Walk, I have a time lapse. I feel the excitement of the naive schoolgirl from a rural high school arriving at a serene Ivy League campus in the big city. Little did I realize what turbulent years lay ahead as American university life would be forever changed. My dormitory Hill Hall (oddly, my address in Colchester was Hall Hill) was strictly women-only. When my dad wanted to carry up my suitcase, I had to walk before him like a city crier shouting “man on the floor.” Skirts were required for classes. There were nightly curfews. If you came in late, you had to appear before a campus court.

Then the campus convulsed with the changing times of challenging authority. A sit-in was organized by the Students for a Democratic Society against the University City Science Center over its displacement of residents as well as its Defense Department contract and secret research provisions. We also demonstrated in the early morning before class at the Philadelphia induction office and against Dow Chemicals production of napalm.

The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. shocked us into action. Black students grew Afros and touted Black Power. We watched movies like The Graduate and A Clockwork Orange, and sang along at campus concerts of the Grateful Dead and Simon & Garfunkel.

Fifty-one years later, Hill Hall is coed and air-conditioned, but has stringent security at the door. Students can’t imagine anyone dictating a dress code and don’t know what the word “parietals” means. They have their own issues, like deciding whether a trans-woman swimming champion is fairly competing against cis women, whether the anti-Asian opinions of a law professor are free speech or racism, and of course the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

We of the so-called Love Generation somehow managed to hand in homework and take exams. Most of the alumni I meet at the reunion went on from the ’60s to distinguished careers in medicine and law, in education, journalism and finance. They’ve carried their liberal sensibilities into their politics and the causes they support.

At the reunion, our class dedicates a lactation room for nursing moms in memory of a late classmate who worked in public health in the Third World. Children of the ’60s at Penn have grown up to be good citizens, steady voters and devoted grandparents. A prominent sit-in leader of the ’60s was among the speakers. Today he works for the university.

Taking part in the reunion helps me reclaim a cherished part of my life eclipsed by moving to Israel and the chronic drama of life here. I feel so energized that I find myself dancing to the Rolling Stones music from the loudspeakers as I carry the “Class of 1971” sign in the alumni march.

All these years later, wearing the cap and gown I eschewed half a century ago, my fellow alumni and I make two rows through which the recent graduates march on to the next chapters of their lives. I’d like to tell them that every chapter of their lives contributes to the whole. But maybe advice not from the roaring ’60s but from 1737, from Benjamin Franklin, is better. Said Ben Franklin: The noblest question in the world is, What good may I do in it?