Jessica Shpall (Beverly Hills High School. Will attend UC San Diego.)
"I went to Israel last summer, and I had a rebirth. I definitely want to start Hebrew in the fall."
Erin Slaten (El Camino Real High School. Will attend UC San Diego.)
"I got into Brandeis, but I felt kind of alienated by so much Judaism."
Rebecca Schenker (Hamilton High School Music Magnet. Will attend Brandeis University.)
"My parents are successful, and there's been this comfort zone my entire life. I've been allowed to explore various sides of myself."
Babak Armin (Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. Will enter UCLA. Came to the United States nine years ago from Iran.)
"Every single decision that I've made, my religion has something to do with it."
Alison Steinlauf (Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. Will spend a year at a women's yeshiva in Israel, then enter Columbia University.)
"I love literature, but when I'm reading from the Bible and we're learning in depth, I feel it has so much more application to my life."
Sarra Alpert (Milken Community High School. Will enter UC San Diego.)
"I have grown up with Judaism as a religion of joy."
Stanislav Avezov (Fairfax High School. Will attend USC. Came to the United States four years ago from Tajikistan.)
"My parents have been successful, but we had to leave all that and come here with nothing. So I promised them I will be rich."
Amy Levine (Hollywood High School Performing Arts Magnet. Will enter San Francisco State.)
"I'm one of those people who looks to now more than to tomorrow."
Naomi Tarle (Santa Monica High School. Will enter the University of Washington.)
"I'll pass my values down, no matter who I marry and what they believe in."
Meet the class of 1998. This month, they leave high school behind and careen toward adult life. For all nine of them, this means college and a variety of career plans -- some vague, some definite. Their number includes an aspiring actress, three would-be veterinarians, and a young athlete who's aiming for a berth on the national rowing team.
They are all Jewish, but in very different ways. One has barely been inside a synagogue; others are committed to Jewish observance on a daily basis. For the majority, Judaism is first and foremost a cultural connection, and their family holiday observances are being squeezed into increasingly busy secular lives. "We try to keep the matzo thing," says Amy Levine, "but it doesn't really work." And Stan Avezov notes that in his household, "We follow all the traditions most of the time."
Still, though their level of observance varies, there is much they have in common. Chosen for this interview by their respective school guidance counselors, they are all accomplished and involved. Not surprisingly, they all feel a buoyant optimism about the future. However they define success, they're confident they can achieve it. They're eager to leave home and ready to take on the new adventures that await them.
The nine found some spare moments, amid the pre-graduation whirl, to gather at The Jewish Journal offices. There, prompted by questions from Journal staffers, they swapped stories about their lives, past, present and future.
Jewishness: 'It's About Life'
Everyone talks about whether future generations will retain their Jewishness. If you went to college and fell in love with someone who wasn't Jewish, what would you do?
Babak: I have no problem being friends with Christians or Moslems, but when it comes down to getting married, I can't even think about marrying someone who's not Jewish. My priorities, my values, my culture are so much different than theirs, I can't see how it could work out.
Stan: I wasn't planning to marry soon, but if I would find somebody non-Jewish who loves me and if I love her, and she respects my religion, I would surely marry her.
Sarra: I have a lot to learn from people who are different from me. I'm very open to meeting people with new perspectives. But as far as falling in love with someone who isn't Jewish...it's not a value judgment on that person. It's the fact that Judaism is such an important part of my life and an important part of my values that it would be very hard for someone to love me who couldn't understand that. And it would be hard for me to make a life with that person. What's that joke from "Fiddler on the Roof"? A fish and a bird can fall in love, but where will they make a home?
Rebecca: My mother was born Catholic and never converted to Judaism. My father was hardly a religious Jew, but I have a strong Jewish identity. I don't think I could actually fall in love with someone who wouldn't let me be my religion and let my children be my own religion as well. But I don't think that would stop me from falling in love and being married, as long as my children could be raised as Jewish.
How does the Holocaust influence your Jewish identity?
Jessica: None of my family members were directly affected by the Holocaust. For me, it serves as a reminder that it is important to have Jewish continuity and to be aware of those who are trying to do away with us. And also to be accepting of others. We need to be accepting of everyone. It happened to us; it could happen to anyone else. It could happen again, and we need to watch out for that.
Alison: My grandparents -- all four of them -- were Holocaust survivors. My grandfather was a 40-year-old man; he had three children and a wife, who all perished in the war. One of my great-aunts told me that after the Holocaust, he said, "I'm going to start over, and I'm going to be successful, and I'm going to start a new family." If it weren't for that optimism, I wouldn't be here today. It teaches me a big lesson: If ever I feel challenged, I realize what amazing challenges they were able to go through.
Sarra: The Holocaust, at least as far as I believe, wasn't a Jewish event. It was an event that happened to the Jewish people. It was sad and it was horrifying, and it's tremendously admirable that so many people were able to overcome that, and that we as a nation were able to overcome that. But I think that if, as a religion and a culture, we're held together by something that's about death, and that other people orchestrated, then that doesn't say very much for what we are. There's so much more to learn from our life in Jewish culture than there is from death.
Naomi: You (Sarra) say it's about death, but, in my family, it's also about life, because you learn about the death from the people who are living, who survived it. I get more "let's live!" instead of "let's die!" out of the Holocaust. It just shows us how life is so precious. I acknowledge that people died, but I acknowledge more the people who survived, because they've gone on with their lives and they've taught their children to be Jewish.
The Future: 'Pretty Great'
When you think of the future, what are your biggest fears?
Alison: I think it's scary that we're actually starting real life now. In high school, you're at home; your parents are providing for you. Then all of a sudden, you're thrust out into the world, and you have to kind of wing it on your own.
Sarra: Right now, I'm really enjoying the fact that I'm young. There's so many opportunities out there, and it doesn't feel like there's a lot of limits. I guess if I were to have a fear about the future, it's that I wouldn't get to make the most of those opportunities. The reason I want to write and to teach is to really try and affect people, to make sure that I live a meaningful life, not just a successful one or an easy one. If I have a fear, it's that it will end up being more difficult than it seems right now. Right now, things just seem pretty great.
Stan: After encountering war in Russia, I fear the same situation happening in America. My grandparents, my great-grandparents lived there. Then something happened...racism, war, they started calling us (names). In a matter of two or three years, most Jewish people left. I don't want it happening here.
What are you most looking forward to?
Rebecca: Being allowed to make your own decisions. It's this weird age, where you're still under your parents' control, but where you know enough and you're mature enough that you could be on your own. I don't think I'll be any more capable to take care of myself when I graduate in a few days than I was the day before. But for my parents, (graduation), of course, makes all the difference.
Naomi: I'm looking forward to being independent also, with the safety net that my parents are still there, paying the bills.
Erin: Being independent. College, having a life. All the exciting, scary stuff ahead.