As students around the Southland graduate and move beyond high school, The Journal sought out some of the outstanding Jewish high school seniors of 10 years ago, talking with five of the 13 valedictorians of the Class of 1993. Current grads can take solace that these five 28-year-olds are proof that there is life after high school.
Chatsworth High School
When Mitch Berger headed to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of '93, he was intent on shedding his high school identity.
"I was tired of being known as the valedictorian guy and the smart guy," said Berger, who was also voted Most Likely to Succeed. While the ambitious student admitted to getting a much-needed break from his high school reputation, his intelligence paid off. He is simultaneously pursuing a career in medicine and a doctorate at Penn.
"My current research is in breast cancer and biochemistry," the articulate scholar said. "I'm certainly interested in oncology, but I'm not sure what I want to do yet." Berger expects to get his doctorate in December and graduate from medical school in spring 2005.
But living so far from home bothers him. "I miss spending holidays with my family," admitted Berger, who is considering moving back to Los Angeles someday. In the meantime, he is enjoying another aspect of his life, saying, "I'm still single, but I'm in a very serious relationship."
Michelle (Avidor) Taus
Michelle Taus believes in soulmates and believes she has found one in her husband, Jimmy Taus. "I'm very lucky," gushed the former straight-A scholar and student body president, who married her beshert (destined) in 2000.
Taus laughed at the memory of being voted Most Spirited back in high school, but her tone changed to one of sadness, when she talked about the now-defunct Herzl School, which closed in 1996 due to financial troubles.
These days, Taus is back in the classroom on her way to becoming an occupational therapist. She recently completed her master's degree at USC and is finishing her internship at an elementary school.
"I'm working with children with autism, learning disabilities and ADD [attention deficit disorder]," said the Pico-Doheny area resident. She hopes to get a job in the Los Angeles school system.
After high school, Taus went to UC Santa Barbara, but left after the first quarter when her sister died. She completed her undergraduate work in social science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. She still has a strong connection to Israel, where her mother and brother currently reside.
Taus' future goals include starting a family. "I would love to raise my kids Jewish," she said. "It's something I'm very connected to."
Valley Torah, Boys
Ten years ago, Bradley Gerszt thought he wanted to be a patent or criminal defense lawyer. But after spending three years in Israel -- two studying at yeshivas and one at Bar-Ilan University -- he found himself back in Los Angeles, finishing his degree in business economics at UCLA.
"After college, it was an option to go to law school, but I got a good job," Gerszt said.
The career-altering investment banking job led Gerszt to his current endeavor as an independent real estate investor. "I liked the world of finance and investing, and real estate brings those things together," he explained.
Besides carving out a career, Gerszt spent a great deal of time working with Jewish volunteer groups, running a Jewish youth group and teaching both bar and bat mitzvah classes and adult Jewish education.
The Brentwood resident is single and happy to be back in Los Angeles with his family. He is very focused on his career and developing his business. "I'd like to build on what I have and move into other states," he said.
Julie (Yarmo) Mencer
Valley Torah, Girls
It was 9 p.m. in Baltimore and Julie Mencer had just put her children to bed. "I can still hear my 2-year-old, but she'll be asleep soon," assured the confident parent. Mencer should know -- she has four children, ranging in age from 6 years old to 4 months.
It's not surprising that the former valedictorian and student body president of Valley Torah, Girls, has such a large family, because she alluded to her love of children back in 1993.
After graduation, Mencer attended Seminar Yerushalayim in Israel for a year. Upon returning to Los Angeles, she changed her plans to go to Stern College in New York, when she was offered a teaching job at Emek Hebrew Academy, her alma mater.
While teaching, she took classes at California State University Northridge and realized that her ambition of becoming a pediatrician had faded.
"I remember sitting in a biology class and thinking, I love biology, but teaching is in my genes," said Mencer, whose mother is an educator.
Since then, Mencer has taught kindergarten at day schools in London, San Jose and Baltimore, because her husband's high-tech public relations career has required the family to move frequently.
Mencer is still in touch with her Valley Torah teachers. "Whenever I had a baby, I called the principal," she giggled. She still looks to her Valley Torah and Emek teachers as role models and hopes to go into school administration in the future.
James Jacob Finsten
Palm Springs High School
Even with his busy school schedule, Jim Finsten admitted that he often thinks of the summers he spent as a teenager at Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. "I credit them with making me think about being a Jew every day," said the USC law student, who expects to graduate in May 2004.
After getting his bachelor's and master's degrees at Stanford University (both in public policy), Finsten spent time in Israel. "I learned some Hebrew, worked in a high-tech venture capital firm for a summer and then went to kibbutz and broke rocks in a concrete factory," said the future lawyer, who is currently a summer associate at the law firm of Arnold & Porter. Finsten is looking forward to finishing law school.
Looking back on the past 10 years, the Westwood bachelor is grateful for the time he spent in Israel. "I'm glad I got a chance to learn Hebrew and be there before the infifada got started. It had a profound effect on me."