The Class of ’93

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.

Mitchell Berger

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

Herzl School

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.”

Bradley Gerszt

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.”

Hearts in the Right Place

Call it a mission with a mission.”It was the most amazing trip,” Dr. Charles Pollick told The Journal. “I’ve been to Israel many times, but they really rolled out the red carpet for us.”

Unlike previous visits, this sojourn was more business than pleasure. Pollick, a cardiologist at Good Samaritan Hospital, was among three local medical professionals — 21 overall from America and Canada — who volunteered for a weeklong emergency medical care program, Aug. 4-11, organized by the Jewish Agency and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The Beverlywood family man did not hesitate to sign up for the program.

“If Israel is sick, we need to help,” Pollick, 52, says. The doctors participated in an intensive medical orientation, which included a tour of Israeli hospitals, the IDF Medical Corps School of Military Medicine and the medical branches of the Central and Homefront commands. The doctors also met with Health Minister Nissim Dahan and Col. Hezi Levi, deputy surgeon general of the IDF.

The IDF’s goal, Pollick notes, is to train the doctors so that “should there be a war, we will go back to work in civilian hospitals because their doctors will have to work [on the frontline].”

Pollick is not exaggerating when he says that Israeli doctors work on the frontlines. Of the 13 soldiers ambushed in Jenin earlier this year, eight were medics, he says.

He adds that Israel is looking for more volunteers, especially surgeons and anesthesiologists.

“The most poignant part of the trip,” Pollick says, “was when we met with an 18-year-old victim of terror [of the May 28 Itamar study hall ambush]. He survived, but he’s now a paraplegic.”

Ultimately, volunteers such as Pollick and Pasadena pediatrician Henie Fialkoff came away impressed.

“Their readiness for biological and chemical warfare is incredible,” he says. “They’re very prepared in Israel. Far more advanced than in America.”

“It impressed on me that Americans are very naive,” Fialkoff adds. “The entire world has really changed. We’re in the 1930s, on the brink of major catastrophe. Israel is prepared for it. America is not.”

Area doctors who would like to volunteer their skills for emergency situations in Israel should contact Dr. Eric Karsenty in Israel at .


Programs Continue at Valley JCCs

Programs will continue at the various Jewish Community Centers (JCC) around the San Fernanado Valley, albeit not all under the same umbrella. The new North Valley Jewish Community Center, Inc., (NVJCC) a nonprofit organization created after the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) divested itself from the Granada Hills site, is still in negotiations to purchase the site, and is temporarily relegated to using only part of the property. But it still opened its summer camp July 1 with 10 children.

The organization hoped to use the entire property by September, NVJCC board member Andrea Goodstein said, noting that discussions with the JCCGLA toward that end were going well.

As for the other two Valley centers, the West Valley JCC is fully functioning and remaining a part of JCCGLA for the time being, according to JCCGLA Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi. Valley Cities JCC’s preschool ended the school year with an enrollment of more than 100 children, Giladi said, so both the site’s preschool and after-school programs will open in the fall as usual. Programs for seniors at Valley Cities are also continuing in a limited fashion, despite the cuts made following the JCCGLA’s declaration of near bankruptcy last December.

Enrollment has begun for preschool and after school programs at the NVJCC with a message line set up for both at (818) 594-4075. — Wendy J. Madnick, Contributing Writer

West Valley Community Health ExpoDebuts

Shomrei Torah Synagogue will join forces with co-sponsors Temple Aliyah, Valley Outreach Synagogue and the West Valley Jewish Community Center to present the very first West Valley Community Health Expo, a daylong fundraiser benefiting Magen David Adom West, on Aug. 4.

The concept behind the Health Expo evolved as a vehicle for an idea of Shomrei Torah’s Rabbi Richard Camras to raise the $54,900 needed to purchase an ambulance for Israel. The Expo will feature a variety of medical screenings, a blood drive and health- and safety-related exhibits. Scheduled speakers include: Judy Ziedler, who will lecture on the joys of kosher cooking; Jerry Guon, liver transplant recipient, who will speak on Jewish perspective on organ donation; Dr. Rena Falk, of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who will talk about genetic screening; and representatives of Stroller Power, a group that teaches exercise workouts for new moms.

“I’m hoping that people will come to the Expo to learn about their own health,” said Nedra Weinreich, Health Expo Committee chair, “as well as do something that will help the health of those in Israel. You can help save lives here and as well in Israel.”

West Valley Community Health Expo will take place from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Aug. 4 at Shomrei Torah Synagogue, 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. Blood drives will be held from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations will be encouraged. For information, call (818) 346-2721; or visit

— Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Shop ‘Til You Drop

Need a crock pot? Or would you prefer to donate your old one? If so, you’ll want to know that one of the San Fernando Valley’s most popular thrift shops has moved. The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) celebrated the opening of its Canoga Park store on June 11.

The store replaces the one previously located in Reseda. Harriet Baron, executive director of NCJW/LA, said she hopes the change will attract even more customers and donors.

“Quite simply, we felt that there was a market in the West Valley we were not reaching,” Baron said. “We know we have many constituents there.”

Baron said the new location has the advantage of being within the radius of a stretch of antique stores and thrift shops. The Canoga Park store is more spacious than its predecessor, with furniture housed on one side of the store and racks of clothing, mostly for women, on the right. There is a limited amount of children’s clothing but plenty of bric-a-brac for the kitchen and the prices are very reasonable. The store is easy to spot from the street due to its distinctive blue-and-white mural. The mural is based on an original design by Burton Morris in Pittsburgh, Pa., and was painted by a local artist known as Chase, who does all of his artwork for NCJW using spray paint.

Altogether, NCJW operates six thrift shops.

The store is located at 21716 Sherman Way. Hours of operation are 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Monday through Saturday) and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Sunday). For more information, call (818) 710-7206. — WM

How the West Was Jewish

Historical figure Solomon Heydenfeldt, a Jewish justice on the California Supreme Court from the Gold Rush era, ruled on California water laws and cases involving religious freedom. Donning black-and-purple robes, an old-fashioned bow tie and his best southern accent, law professor Peter Reich brought Heydenfeldt to life for fourth-graders at Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School in Encino this past spring.

As the school’s fourth-grade social studies curriculum includes the California Gold Rush, Reich’s presentation brought a Jewish element to the study of American history during this period.

For the last 12 years, Reich has taught property and environmental law at Whittier College, as well as a legal history class at UC Irvine. — Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer