As the school year comes to a close, The Jewish Journal profiled eight outstanding graduating seniors from a cross section of high schools in Los Angeles. An examination of their dreams, their hopes, their personal and professional goals -- as well as what has shaped them in the past -- proves that the Jewish future is alive and well.
High School: Fairfax High School
College: University of Judaism
Andriy Kuznetsov recalls the teacher saying that Jews would "not understand" certain works while studying literature in public school in the Ukraine. When he decided to switch to the only Jewish day school there, the administration at the public school gave him a hard time for leaving because he was such a good student.
After Kuznetsov and his sister left Kiev three years ago to live with relatives in Los Angeles, he re-created his reputation as a good student at Fairfax High School. His record granted him acceptance to UCLA and Berkeley, but Kuznetsov decided to attend the University of Judaism (UJ) next fall.
"I wanted a chance to do what I wanted to do, not what everybody wants to do," Kuznetsov said. "UJ has classes on Jewish background and religion that other colleges wouldn't offer," he said.
Kuznetsov and his sister came to this country alone, leaving behind his father, who was partially paralyzed by a stroke; his mother passed away when he was 7.
Kuznetsov is unsure of his professional goal, but has an idea it will be in a medical field such as physical therapy or chiropractic. He looks forward to studying Judaism and to be able to travel out of the country freely to visit his father in Kiev.
High School: Beverly Hills High
College: Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (MIT)
Dejah Judelson's parents seem to have had a prophetic touch when they named Dejah after a character in one of their favorite science-fiction series, "Princess of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The math and science wizard is heading to MIT this fall, where she hopes to unlock the mysteries of the future.
"I love the idea of thinking into the future and seeing where molecular biology and chemical engineering could take us," said Judelson, who's not as linear-minded as her destination next year makes her out to be.
The Beverly Hills High senior also played on the school track and soccer teams, wrote for the school newspaper and seriously pursued photography. She chose MIT over Berkeley in part because she liked the idea of creating her own English classes, a gesture MIT offers to make up for its notoriously slack humanities department, and
because there are more women studying in her field of interest.
There is a history of strong, science-oriented women in Judelson's family. Both her parents are MIT grads, but it was her mom, a cardiologist in Beverly Hills, who got her interested in math and science. And that's not all. Judelson's younger sister, Anjuli, is named after an Indian princess of another book series dear to the royal family. "She's much smarter than I am," said Judelson, soon-to-be princess of MIT. Seems there's some good molecular biology in that family.
High School: Hamilton High
School Academy of Music
College: School of Theatre, USC
Matt Phillips literally has a bright future ahead of him.
Working as a lighting designer at Hamilton High Academy of Music's concerts and plays for the past four years, he became so intrigued that he decided to major in lighting design at USC's School of Theatre.
Lighting designers create the lighting's own plot and concept. In his most recent musical at Hamilton, "Sweet Charity," Phillips was in charge of 190 light cues.
After college, he said, his first choice is to tour with a band whose concerts require interesting lighting and skilled technicians. Phillips has lit up the Beverly Hills Jewish community since eighth grade, working the lights for the intergenerational shows at the Temple Emanuel Arts Center every winter.
"That gave me a great opportunity to work," Phillips said. "Not only that, I was with a Jewish community that was involved in what I liked to do, so it was a nice setting."
High School: Valley Torah High
School (Girls Division)
Next Year: Michlelet Esther
Most students going to private girls' schools may resent having to wear those scratchy, pleated, below-the-knee polyester excuses for uniform skirts, but not Dena Lerner. Even though the self-professed Valley girl thinks these potato sacks are part of "an agenda to make us all look fat," she admits she likes them.
Lerner thinks of her "indestructible" uniform skirt as an equivalent to Superman's cape, serving as a symbol of her success and spirit -- from her English classes to the hiking, skiing and rafting she does during the school shabbatonim.
Lerner also liked not having to worry about impressing boys, saying, "It's easier to compete with the same sex." However, she did manage to find time to shine in other clothing. During her senior year, she dressed up as Pocahontas, Mary Poppins and Jasmine of Disney's "Aladdin" for the school's annual musical extravaganza.
Next year, she plans to go to Michlelet Esther, an all-girls yeshiva in Jerusalem. She hasn't settled on career plans, saying, "I wasn't even planning on growing up." And what about boys? "When I get to college, I'll deal with the boy thing," she said, and then adds under her breath, "Yeah, the boys. I'll take care of them."
High School: Santa Monica High School
College: Indiana University,
School of Music
Daniel Mark distilled some of the sounds from the Holocaust because many of the musical survivors had to placate their Nazi captors by performing for them.
As first-place winner in the Jay Shalmoni Memorial Holocaust Arts and Writing Contest last year, Mark composed a choir piece based on the melodies and words of Henry Rosmarin, a Holocaust survivor who saved his own life by playing the harmonica.
Mark arranged for the top choir at his school to perform the piece for a student audience. Rosmarin himself introduced the piece with his harmonica, and the choir sang his lyrics, translated from Polish into English.
This year Mark worked on a more light-hearted production, arranging the score and conducting the orchestra for the high school's production of "Grease."
He doesn't plan to focus solely on music next year. "I just want to grow and find out what's out there, but I chose [the school of music] because I knew that I had a strong feeling that I would pursue music," he said. Mark hopes one day to lead an orchestra, perhaps a high school or semi-professional ensemble, because he'd like to be in a position in which, he said, "I'm still teaching people, as opposed to just conducting."
High School: Yeshiva University High
School of Los Angeles (YULA),
College: Columbia University,
School of Engineering
Before college, Rachel Millman has decided to study next year at Michlalah College for Women in Jerusalem. She told The Jounal she thinks it's unfortunate that several of her classmates gave up their plans to spend the next year in Israel because of the escalation in violence there.
She will enter Columbia's School of Engineering as a freshman in the fall of 2002. "Ever since I was young, I've enjoyed building and constructing in my head," she said.
At Columbia, she plans to continue her Jewish studies and her Orthodox way of life while juggling a demanding schedule and ambitious career goals.
"What I would really love to do, if it would work with a Jewish family, is to go to law school afterwards," Millman said. Patent law, she figures, would be a great way to apply engineering expertise creatively and practically.
Millman is not only a strong math and science student but was student body president, "Athlete of the Year" and captain of both the varsity basketball and volleyball teams.
Along with several other YULA students, she started the West Coast branch of Yachad, an organization that runs programs for mentally disabled Jewish children, and she volunteered at Etta Israel, a similar organization.
She won't change her mind about going to Israel next year, even in the face of arguments from family and friends. "I feel it's really important to go to show our support, especially now," Millman said.
High School: Shalhevet
When Ilan Graff isn't leading a Shalhevet town hall meeting, writing for the school newspaper or heading a delegation or model UN, you may find him glued to the TV watching the latest Lakers game. That's because this Harvard-bound super-teen is not only an outspoken and accomplished student but also a huge Lakers fan.
Graff's ability to articulate and empathize with what's in the hearts of Jewish teens, from sports to issues of tolerance, made him excel as a school leader and statesman at Shalhevet, where students are encouraged to play a role in the governance of the school. Graff settled student-teacher disputes as a member of the school's Fairness Committee, the student court. He served as vice chair and later chair of the Agenda Committee, leading the weekly town-hall meetings that give students a voice in school policy.
Political science and government are natural avenues for Graff to explore at Harvard. He has received awards for his participation in the Model UN program, and this past summer he participated in Brandeis University's Genesis program, which is like a boot camp for Mideast diplomacy. He does not necessarily see Mideast diplomacy as a career path, but his interest in the region is strong both as a Jew and a human being. In ninth grade, he traveled to Israel after winning Bar Ilan University's International Competition on Jewish Identity for Jewish Youth.
This summer Graff plans to intern at the University of Judaism, and even though high school is over, he has his sights on one more highlight before summer: seeing the Lakers win the NBA championship.
High School: Milken Community High School
College: UC Berkeley
The night before graduation, Rena Dinin gave in to her rebellious streak and decided to scratch her prepared, edited and approved valedictorian's speech and write a new one.
"The first speech I wrote was fine and well-written, but I was in synagogue discussing it with someone who helped me, and then we listened to the rabbi's sermon, talking about Israel," she explained. "It seemed so absurd that here I am worrying about this speech when there are kids dying in Israel."
So she mustered her courage to speak from her heart about her experiences at Milken. "People cried," she said. Dinin's love for the Jewish people and her emotional ties to the Jewish homeland propelled her into being a Jewish leader throughout high school. Following the example of her Jewish educator parents, she has been actively involved in promoting Jewish continuity through her many leadership positions in United Synagogue Youth (USY) and Teen Klal, a program that brings together Jews of all denominations to learn from each other and promote unity.
"I've learned so much and gained so much from being involved with those institutions -- amazing friendships and leadership," Dinin said. "I love life, and getting all of these chances and experiences and making all of these memories."