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Jewish Journal

Some students follow road less traveled to college

by Julie G Fax

May 24, 2007 | 8:00 pm

The obsession among middle-class Jews about getting into the best possible college is a well-worn stereotype: Parents begin agonizing even before their children are accepted into preschool.

Kids are enrolled in an endless array of extracurriculars -- piano lessons, ballet, soccer, sometimes all on the same day -- and at the same time they are expected to earn perfect grades and demonstrate their leadership skills and social compassion.

Families shell out money for expensive tutors and test prep classes, as well as private consultants who help lay out the road to that dream university, which will lead to the best graduate program, which will lead to the perfect job, which will lead to an ideal life.

This tired and overplayed stereotype may contain some truth, but the other parallel reality is that there are also many students who retain enough independent thought to create their own unique paths.

Because in truth, not everyone goes to Harvard, and that's OK. In fact, not everyone wants to go to Harvard (or Princeton or Yale or Stanford), or even stocks up on enough Advance Placement credits or extracurriculars or unique experiences to get into the Ivy League schools (or UCLA or Michigan or NYU).

"The resume is a reflection of you," college freshman Alex Popper says. "You shouldn't be the reflection of resume."

The Jewish Journal talked to four students who shatter the Jewish college-obsessed stereotype.

Meet Tuvia Korobkin,Tuvia Korobkin who chose yeshiva over college, then got into UCLA Law School. Walla Walla, Wash., was a better choice than Berkeley or Brown for Marnie Burgoyne. It wasn't until high school that Popper figured out what made him tick academically. And Jessica Tanya Spivak, who took the high school equivalency exam, struggled to achieve mediocre grades until she got to the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), where last week she graduated summa cum laude.

When it came time for law school, Tuvia Korobkin was in the enviable position of having to choose between UCLA, USC and Georgetown (he got wait-listed at NYU and Penn). So what was his undergraduate experience that so impressed these high-ranking schools?

At Ner Israel in Baltimore, an all-male yeshiva, Korobkin earned a bachelor's in talmudic law.

While Ner Israel, which is accredited by the state of Maryland, offers the option of -- but does not require -- taking secular classes at nearby universities, Korobkin chose to focus on his Talmud study and took some summer classes in politics and economics at Santa Monica City College.

Korobkin, who just successfully finished his first year at UCLA Law School, says he and his parents always knew he would go to graduate school. He took an LSAT prep course and aced the test, and that, along with his innate intelligence, was enough to get him into some of the best law schools in the country, even without a conventional undergraduate education.

Korobkin's childhood education was somewhat fragmented as the family moved to follow his father's career path (Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is now the spiritual leader at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park). He spent nursery through early elementary school at two San Diego Jewish day schools, then fourth through eighth grade at the Jewish day school in Allentown, Penn., where he was one of four kids in his graduating class.

"I really liked going to school there. I got a lot of personal attention, and it laid a great educational foundation for later years," says Korobkin, 22, and the oldest of 10 siblings.

In ninth grade, Korobkin boarded with a family to attend a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y. When his family moved to Los Angeles, Korobkin rejoined them and attended Valley Torah High School for a year and then YULA boys yeshiva high school for a year. Throughout his school career, even with all the movement, both his grades and his behavior were excellent.

Rather than stay in high school for 12th grade, Korobkin took a high school equivalency exam to earn his diploma and spent the next two years at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel. While he originally intended to attend Yeshiva University in New York, which has a conventional general studies curriculum, he switched to Ner Israel, where his father was ordained.

In addition to taking summer school classes at Santa Monica City College, Korobkin enhanced his college education through a reading list supplied by his grandmother, a former English teacher.

With law school's formulaic and highly focused material, he says he has no problem keeping up, and his expertise in the legal thinking of Talmud study doesn't hurt.

Korobkin admits he does occasionally question whether he missed out by not attending a regular college.

"I guess socially it would have been a lot different, and I would have been more well-rounded, as far as my secular education," he says. "But the path I took was very satisfying. I learned a lot and value the years I had in yeshiva. I made very good friends, I had great rabbis and it really made an impact on my life."

From Russia, With Bs

Jessica Tanya Spivak never liked school much. She was the first in her Moldovan immigrant family to be born in America, and the language barrier always made school difficult.

Jessica Tanya Spivak Her parents, who both have advanced degrees from the former Soviet Union, knew that education would get their daughter ahead. She had tutors, they got her into good magnet schools and they had lots of talks trying to figure out why she just wasn't getting the material.

Spivak went to three elementary schools, finally landing in the gifted magnet program at Wonderland Avenue School in Laurel Canyon and then John Burroughs Magnet School in Hancock Park for middle school.

Some of the time she tried hard; other times she just gave up. She had some teachers who really tried to help her through, and most others who just let her fall through the cracks. For high school, Spivak went to Cleveland High School Humanities Magnet in Reseda, which has an intense, interdisciplinary, writing-heavy curriculum. The school was an hour-and-a-half bus ride from her Hollywood home, and she had to be at the bus stop by 6 a.m. and often stayed up well past midnight studying. All this while she took classes in art, dance, tennis -- and kept up active involvement in Temple Israel of Hollywood, where she was an assistant teacher, president of the youth group and often led services or chanted Torah for the whole congregation. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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