Bookended by pandemic and war, high school seniors reflect on the last 4 years
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Bookended by pandemic and war, high school seniors reflect on the last 4 years

'Be flexible, control what you can control, but also let yourself ride the wave of what comes at you'

Photo by Delegate Connect Images via Flickr at
Photo by Delegate Connect Images via Flickr at

Before it was made into a musical or characterized by mean girls, fast times and days off, high school was established to confront modernity.

Two hundred years ago, East Coast educators and political activists recognized that advancement required further study for the young. Despite a war in Israel and political strife at home, modernity has never been in better hands, according to Pittsburgh’s Jewish youth.

Today’s graduates entered high school during the pandemic.

Emmet Schuler is graduating from Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of Amy Schuler)

Although those years are hard to remember, “I feel like we would be pretty prepared” for future challenges, Emmet Schuler, 17, said.

Schuler and his twin brother, Dov Schuler, are graduating from Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh next month.

“The pandemic was a strange time,” Emmet Schuler said. “You had to get used to using a computer as your main source of knowledge.

“It’s hard to imagine how I learned anything,” Akiva Weinkle, 18, said. “You’d wake up, get out of bed, go to your desk, look up and it’s 3 o’clock and the day is halfway over.”

Weinkle is graduating from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School next month.

“Every once in a while, we’ll have online school — like if it’s a snow day or the building is too hot — and I’ll think how ridiculous it is that I did this for a whole year,” he said.

Ellia Neiss, 17, was in the United Kingdom with her family when “COVID-19” and “social distancing” entered common parlance.

“I was living in London, and we actually moved back for the sole purpose of me starting high school here, but it didn’t happen because it was all online,” she said.

To mark the first day of her freshman year, Neiss’ parents took a photograph of their daughter.

Like so many seniors, Ellia Neiss began ninth grade online. (Photo courtesy of Ellia Neiss)

“I am sitting at my desk with nine fingers held up,” she said. “Anything that has to do with biology, geometry, freshman English, I couldn’t tell you anything about because that whole year is like a fever dream.”

It was hard to “feel like I was in high school,” Jennifer Jackson, 17, said. “The rowing team helped.”

Jackson, who is graduating from Allderdice next month, joined the squad her sophomore year.

“It became a second family — a place to come and be with people I care about and do the sport I love,” she said.

Neiss agreed that athletics offered respite.

“The girls on the soccer team were my friends,” she said. “I was able to play all four years. It was a really good outlet for me even though I had to wear a mask.”

As high school progressed, extracurricular events and other social gatherings resumed.

Students eventually returned to in-person learning.

“But the pandemic didn’t go away all at once,” Schuler said. “Sometimes we would go back for a week, or two weeks, or a month. It was pretty challenging to find a norm.”

“Tenth and 11th grade were really different,” said, Weinkle, a Community Day School graduate who began high school at Pittsburgh CAPA, then transferred to Allderdice before junior year.

Akiva Weinkle is all smiles. (Photo courtesy of Akiva Weinkle)

“When I was younger and thought what high school was going to be like, these past two years are like what I thought it would be,” he said.

There’s something “bittersweet” about graduating, Jackson said. “I am kind of sad, but I also appreciate the high school experience a little more.”

Neiss visited her freshman math teacher’s classroom the other day.

Even though she never sat in that space — or even learned from that instructor in person — Neiss described her relationship with her former teacher as close.

“I was one of the only kids to turn my camera on and ask questions,” the senior said.

As the teacher and student were chatting, a group of ninth graders entered the room.

“It’s crazy that I never had the experience of being a freshman,” Neiss said.

“I wish I had all four years,” Jackson said. “It was definitely cut short, but overall I feel like I had a good high school experience.”

Following commencement, Pittsburgh’s Jewish youth, like high school seniors nationwide, will explore diverse paths.

Jackson is attending Robert Morris University. Neiss is going to Villanova University. Weinkle is taking a gap year in Israel — he’s participating in Young Judaea Year Course — before attending Indiana University Bloomington. Emmet Schuler hopes to enroll in a rabbinical program in Australia. His brother Dov is attending Pittsburgh Zal, a post-secondary Jewish learning program for young men.

Jennifer Jackson dons a costume she made. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Jackson)

It’s strange to think about life after high school, Dov Schuler said. “We moved to Pittsburgh when my brother and I were 4. We’ve been at Yeshiva ever since. Most of our classmates have known each other since kindergarten, and this will be the first year where everyone is splitting up.”

Though their destinations differ, the high school seniors told the Chronicle that the last few years have prepared them for the world they’re entering as young Jewish adults.

Jackson said she learned to speak carefully about difficult topics, like the Israel-Hamas war and pauses to “see what the people around me say before I say something.”

It’s frustrating when “people post ignorant things on social media,” but one way of countering it is working with others, Neiss, a senior counselor for Diller Teen Fellows, said.

Aiding local Jewish 10th and 11th graders, who navigate similar situations online, has been helpful. “It’s a big part of my Jewish identity,” she said.

“I don’t hold it against people, but there’s a lot of misinformation going on,” Emmet Schuler said.

Dov Schuler is graduating from Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy of Amy Schuler)

While distributing Shabbat candles and also when helping passersby don tefillin, Schuler and his brother said they’ve experienced verbal assaults.

“We’ve had quite a few altercations with guys, a lot of people screaming out of car windows,” Dov Schuler said.

Lessons of the past provide a pathway forward, Emmet Schuler said: “It’s best to keep your head up high, ignore it and get your day done.”

For Jackson, high school provided a prism to the future.

So much of these past few years felt out of reach, so “the philosophy I have tried to go by is let life happen to me — you can control parts of it, but you just have to see where you go,” she said. “Be flexible, control what you can control, but also let yourself ride the wave of what comes at you.”

The present period is tumultuous for many people, but high school offered essential instruction, Dov Schuler said.

“We have to focus on the good because there is so much of it now — there’s more now than I have ever seen before,” he said. “Why focus on the bad?” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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