August 20, 2019

Dedicated to Sephardic Life

High School: Milken Community Schools
College: Brandeis University 

For the past four years, Robert Carlson has participated in the interfaith program NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, traveled to Israel as part of the selective Bronfman Fellowship, and volunteered at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. 

The son a Turkish-Sephardic mother and a Methodist father, Carlson also is dedicated to preserving his mother’s culture. He speaks the Judeo-Spanish language Ladino and is active in a Ladino reading group. He also enjoys cooking Sephardic food and studying at the Sephardic Educational Center.

“It has meant so much to me to be a young person and preserve all of those Sephardic customs,” Carlson told the Journal. “There has been a lot of assimilation, for better or worse, and we haven’t been able to preserve our Ladino language and customs as much as other groups have, and I think that is something I felt the duty to do.”

Carlson has brought his Sephardic heritage into discussions with other Jews and Muslims while involved with Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change (MAJIC), the high school leadership program of NewGround. 

“I think I was the only Sephardic person there, so I tried to bring the fact that Jews and Muslims [once] lived together” into the conversation, he said.

“It has meant so much to me to be a young person and preserve all of those Sephardic customs.”  

During his five weeks in Israel last summer as part of the Bronfman Fellowship, Carlson said, “I think the important thing I learned, or maybe Bronfman made my belief even firmer, is we are a diverse people with different opinions and different ways of practicing. The most important thing is being aware of one another and being aware of our different customs and just being in communication with each other.”

Active in his school’s creative writing program, Carlson has published what he described as a “semi-true” short story in his school’s magazine about a relative from the Greek island of Rhodes and her experience going back to her native country after years away from home. 

Carlson also has been active since the eighth grade in Holocaust remembrance through the Righteous Conversations Project, a program that pairs students with Holocaust survivors to create public service announcements. He said working with survivors is more dynamic than just listening to a survivor share his or her story. 

“This was getting them to talk about their hopes for the future and kind of giving students and young people a to-do list, words of action we can take, which are also very important,” he said.

This fall, Carlson will attend Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where he will study in the school’s Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. He is considering a career in immigration law, noting that he has been fascinated with immigrant communities in Los Angeles since he was very young, accompanying his father downtown to explore parts of Los Angeles unfamiliar to him.

Carlson credits his strong Jewish identity to his close-knit family. “The message was being a dedicated and devoted Jew does not mean you should be in a closet covering yourself and not talking or learning about other people.”

Keep on reading about our 2019 Outstanding Seniors here.