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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

2020’s Outstanding High School Seniors: Pomp Without Circumstance

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Every year, the Journal highlights outstanding senior high school graduates. We reach out to the schools and ask them to nominate whom they believe to be their most outstanding students. This year, however, with the coronavirus pandemic, we wanted to highlight the fact that every senior is outstanding — for finding the grit, resilience and fortitude to continue their studies virtually when their senior year was cut short; for having to graduate without a prom or a full-blown ceremony; for having to peer into an uncertain future. And so, we asked this year’s seniors about their experiences and their hopes and fears and dreams. Here’s what they said:

 

Rachel Judah: Learning About Myself in Lockdown
Harkham GAON Academy 

This year there is no graduation party, no cap and gown, no family or friends to see me graduate, and no walking up to receive my diploma. What a crazy reality we’re living in — graduation validation has gone in an instant. But why is this so upsetting? Truthfully, I’m not so sure. I have never known exactly what to expect at a graduation. Maybe having parents who weren’t born in America has something to do with this because their Euro-culture never offered a high school graduation, and as the oldest in my family, I have no firsthand experience of the great graduation experience. 

Graduating from high school is a big deal, don’t get me wrong, and even more so when you graduate on your 16th birthday with two years of college credits completed. But I don’t understand the hype, and maybe that’s why graduating over Zoom hasn’t really upset me. During lockdown I have learned more about myself and that things don’t matter nearly as much as we think. That is the best graduation gift of all.

 

Nicole Klausner: Embracing the Value of Independence
Shalhevet High School

Twelfth grade was supposed to mark the culmination of our education, the celebration of our accomplishments, the cementing of our friendships and experiencing a trip to Poland and Israel together. That all came to a screeching halt with the COVID-19 pandemic. I never imagined that my final months in high school would be spent in front of a screen in my bedroom alone taking the AP exam online, unable to celebrate and commiserate with friends over college acceptances and rejections, unable to have a graduation, hug my friends or even eat lunch together again. 

As I sit alone, I miss the little things about school the most — my friends between classes, joking around with my teachers and performing crazy TikTok dances in the halls. Despite this horrific pandemic, I have learned to embrace the value and importance of independence, knowing that I have friends even though I am isolated, and understanding that I can learn even though I’m not physically in my favorite classrooms. 

I am grateful for my health, for my friends, FaceTime, Zoom, the efforts my high school has made to provide seniors with a memorable year even in these pressing times, that I learned how to cook, bake and even use the washing machine. 

I could have easily allowed the quarantine mindset to envelope, depress and isolate me. Instead, I choose to remain an active part of my high school community, be engaged, learn in my new environment and build memories with my friends, albeit virtually. 

 

Gabby Lasry: I’ve Learned to Appreciate the Special Times
Shalhevet High School

Even though the Class of 2020 won’t have a traditional graduation, I’m incredibly grateful that Shalhevet gave us the opportunity to have a private graduation where we celebrated with our families and walked down to get our diplomas in the gym — which really made it feel like a true graduation celebration.

I always think about Shalhevet and what it used to be like to be at school, to wake up in the morning, excited to go to school. Every day was filled with ruach  (spirit) from all of the students and faculty and I truly miss that.

What I’ve learned during this pandemic is not to take everything for granted. We would walk outside, go to school, hang out with our friends and it’s something that we never really appreciated until now. Now, I will appreciate the special time with friends just hanging out and learning in the classroom with our amazing teachers.

 

Aviva Miller: Our Modern-Day Anatevka
Milken Community Schools

Hours before we were supposed to start getting ready for our third performance of “Fiddler on the Roof,” our cast found out that we had already unknowingly performed together for the last time. In a way, the pandemic’s abrupt disruption to everyday life brought me closer to the experiences of the “Fiddler” characters. 

My circumstances ripped me away from the shtetl of Anatevka just as Tevye’s had.

But for me and my Class of 2020 castmates, the pandemic did more than just shorten our stay in Anatevka — it took us away from the Milken community, our modern-day Anatevka. Unlike the Anatevkans, we never got to say goodbye. Nobody knew that Purim would be our last time together, or that we had experienced our last Friday afternoon sprint to the challah table. There are no more Class of 2020 minyan B’yachads before our college diaspora. Like the Anatevkans, we are being thrust into the world after years of sheltered lives within the Jewish community.

While we have been pushed into the adult world prematurely and without warning, in the end, our class will not be defined by our virtual graduations but by the ways we change the world.

 

Jonathan Norafshan: These Pandemic Events Won’t Define Me
Milken Community Schools 

Entering my senior year of high school, I could have never imagined the culmination of the past three years playing out like this. I had so much planned for the few months before graduating, like attending March of the Living, senior night, prom, and more. Although I am beyond saddened that I will not be able to participate in these once-in-a-lifetime events, over the past four months, instead, I have had the opportunity to harbor a special relationship with my family and dearest friends. 

During these months, I have spent most of my days with my immediate family or friends, and now more than ever, I have a clear image who have played a crucial part in my life. Those are the people I want to continue to be surrounded by for the rest of my life. With that, I have realized that everything else is material and, ultimately, auxiliary in the grand scheme of life. Those events won’t define my character and play an integral role in the prosperity of my life. Rather, it is the community and family that push one another up further. 

Although I never envisioned graduating through my computer screen, I did so holding my family, and sitting side by side with one another, as I officially entered a new stage of my life. I plan to continue my journey to learn more languages beyond the four I already know. God put us here to continue to perfect his creation, and that’s done through knowledge.

 

Dvora Olkha: Seeing the Good in Difficult Situations
Valley Torah Girls High

Nine months ago, sitting in shul during the first night of Rosh Hashanah, nobody could have imagined what this year would have in store for us — the world, the Jewish community and all who were scheduled to graduate in just a few months. 

Being a graduate of the Class of 2020 has brought many unique challenges, none of which we could ever have dreamed. Yet here we are, with the entire world lost and confused over what our next move should be. As someone who was lucky enough to have received a Jewish education and be brought up in the loving walls of an incredibly warm environment, I feel as though we have been presented with an opportunity. Either we can sulk and be upset that we could not experience our precious last months with our friends and teachers, or we can use this as the time to reflect and look back on how much we gained thus far from our incredible high school experience. 

As a smaller senior class, we have still found a variety of creative ways to continue to spend time together and even celebrate momentous occasions, such as birthdays and college decisions. Although this may not have been ideal, we persevered and made the most out of the situation presented to us. We also can take this as a lesson for life, that no matter how terrible something may be, we should work on and put our energy toward seeing the good in people and difficult situations. This is much easier said than done. Therefore, I invite all of us as a community, whether or not you are a 2020 graduate — because we have all been affected by this pandemic in one way or another — to not only challenge yourself in seeing the good in the world but also striving to be the good in someone else’s world. 

 

Alexandra Orbuch: Focusing on Meditation
Milken Community Schools

I’m disappointed about graduating “virtually” and losing out on cornerstone senior moments, but overall, I’m just grateful to be healthy and with my family in this crazy time. 

I came to Milken at the outset of my sophomore year, a newly implanted  Angeleno, nervous about beginning a new school (in a new state, no less), and unsure about whether I would find my passions in the next three years. It’s wild to think that as I write this, my days of mock trials in the L.A. County courthouse are over, along with the flurry of publishing articles for The Milken Roar (student newspaper) and so many other wonderful memories. Instead of driving up Mulholland Drive toward the Milken gates this August, I’ll (God willing) be on a flight to Jerusalem to study at Midreshet Lindenbaum and then onto Princeton University. 

Milken bequeathed me a wealth of skills and knowledge, but as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I am excited to soon be in a hub of deep Jewish observance and learning. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it is the importance of gratitude. I have focused on meditation and made sure to hold my family close, knowing I will soon be on another continent.

 

Aliza Pollak: Learning Not Just to Survive, but Thrive
YULA Girls High School

On March 11, we discovered that senior year, as we knew it, had come to an abrupt end. Although, thank God, we were healthy and safe, we all felt like we had experienced a loss. Like every other student in the country, we learned to adapt to the new normal and learn online. But the Class of 2020 had its unique challenge: making the conclusion of our high school experience meaningful under these new conditions. 

While at first things were rocky and tear-filled, we soon learned to use this experience to unite us as a class. Whether that meant grade-wide “Zooms” at night or socially distanced meet-ups at a lookout for sunset, we made sure to take advantage of our final senior moments. And more importantly, we learned to look beyond ourselves and support our peers and our community. We didn’t just learn how to survive in times of crisis; we learned how to thrive.

Although this isn’t the ending to our high school story that we imagined, it’s one that we will be proud to tell our children about one day. Together, we became braver, closer and stronger, and we are proud to forever be known as that class: the Class of 2020.

 

Ivy Pomerance: I Am a Part of History
Windward School 

Never did I imagine that a Wednesday in the middle of March would be my last day of high school on my beloved Windward campus. Other than chitter-chatter about some COVID-19 virus, the day felt like any other day —  until an emergency assembly was called in the middle of my third-period class. That third-period class would mark my final moment of a regular senior year. 

After the announcement that school would go online, I called my father, devastated and in tears. At that point, we did not officially know if we would return, but I just knew we would not. This pandemic stole the fun and freedom of second semester senior year, the prom, the last day of high school, graduation and so much more. I was absolutely heartbroken. Yet in the second week of Zoom school, I woke up and realized that I would have to learn how to manage long-distance friendships while also finding activities that brought me joy at home. I immediately dived into cooking and baking and have enjoyed this new hobby very much. I am exercising via Zoom at home. And I have come to realize that the Class of 2020 will be heavily featured in my children’s history books. I am a part of history, and while I will not be able to tell my children that I threw my cap off the stage at graduation, I will be proud to say that I survived a pandemic and made the best possible lemonade out of the rotten lemons sent my way.

 

Joey Rabinek: Lockdown Has Taught Me to Be Grateful
Milken Community Schools 

It was March 10, and unlike any other day of my senior year, it was Purim and I was dressed as a hot dog. I was looking forward to a fun day full of celebrations, thinking I still had a lot of time left as a student. Although I was aware of COVID-19, the idea of school closing down was only a possibility — never a reality. 

Suddenly: no school and a strict quarantine. Out of nowhere, fulfilling my responsibilities as prom chair was no longer necessary. I was slightly disappointed considering the amount of work my classmates, teachers and I had put into planning this event. Not having a traditional prom or graduation in real life was initially frustrating, but Milken did an excellent job of caring for us during this time. Whether it was the socially-distanced visits from Milken faculty, the deliveries of care packages (even including free Krispy Kremes), or the meaningful virtual ceremonies, I’m beyond satisfied and, in fact, extremely appreciative. 

Lockdown has taught me to be grateful for my community, loved ones, and, dare I say it, school.

 

Sheyna Schusterman: Celebrating My Successes
Shalhevet High School 

Although I’d love to graduate with my grade and finally experience that moment after four years of hard work and dedication, I understand the importance of looking at the positives rather than dwelling on what could have been. Everyone enjoys a little spotlight sometimes, but graduating virtually has given me the opportunity to celebrate my success on my own and I find that to be truly special.

I deeply enjoyed being able to sit in the classroom with my friends and hear them discuss topics and talk about their passions. The amount I’ve learned from my friends over the years has driven me to aim for goals I never thought possible. I’m forever grateful to my friends and teachers for shaping me into the person I am today. Even when situations may seem difficult and time-consuming, they become more enjoyable when you incorporate an activity that has genuine meaning in your life.

In the fall, I’ll be studying neuroscience and dance at Johns Hopkins University. I’ve always enjoyed helping others and I want to pursue a career where I can impact the lives of others on a biological level, while also incorporating my passion.

 

Meital Shafigi: A Resilience I Could Never Have Imagined
Valley Torah Girls High 

2020 has been full of surprises thus far. Life came to an abrupt halt as panic and uncertainty rippled throughout the world. For us, as seniors, all that we looked forward to was taken away without warning. 

At this point in time, we are blessed to see the world slowly reopen and get back on its feet. So now the struggle is not if we move on from this, but how. It is far from simple to culminate our high school journey without the proper closure we envisioned. But these unprecedented circumstances have extracted a certain sense of resilience from within us that I could never have imagined. We are only 18 years old, and for most of us, this is one of the greatest challenges we have undergone throughout our lifetimes. We are now at an age when we must go out and face the world. Usually, graduating seniors have some time to adjust to the shock of real life, but this year, the transition hit us in a flash. 

I am reminded of the phrase: “God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.” HaShem has presented us with an opportunity to showcase our trust in him, to put all that we have learned throughout high school about our relationship with Him into action. Now, actions speak louder than words. We must prove to HaShem that during our most challenging hour, we know it’s for the best. It should comfort us to know that HaShem presented this hardship to us personally as seniors, because He knows we have what it takes to push through it. 

I believe with complete confidence that we, the 2020 seniors, will take advantage of this struggle to strengthen our emunah (faith), open our eyes to see all the good in the world, and to grow closer to HaShem each day.

 

Kiku Shaw: The Pandemic Has Opened My Eyes
Shalhevet High School

I’m honestly OK with graduating virtually. There’s not much we can do. My mindset going through this pandemic is based on what my soccer coach told me: Let the things you cannot change be the change in you. I can’t change the fact that senior year was cut short, but I can take it on with a different attitude and mindset.

I’m really grateful to Shalhevet for making sure that the seniors feel seen and for putting on the best graduation that it can. What I’m missing the most is being with my friends for the past few months. It’s just the day-to-day. It’s the little things like hanging out on the turf on the roof, going to Coffee Bean and doing work together. I’m a big sports person. I love playing on a team and I miss the ebb and flow of a game, of life.

What I’ve learned in lockdown is that if you want things done, you’ve got to do them yourself. The pandemic has opened my eyes to what I want to do. I have parents and family members who have been involved in responding to this pandemic, and it makes me realize that I want to help others in some way and will use my time in college to figure out exactly how.

 

Eliana Sisman: Hurting, but Unbroken
YULA Girls High School 

Over the past few months, I’ve learned how resilient people are. If anyone had told us back in February that we’d have to be isolated and physically distant from one another for 2 1/2 months, I would have felt devastated. I would have feared that we couldn’t endure so much separation. Indeed, isolation is very difficult and painful to experience, especially for people who live alone and/or struggle with mental health. 

Yet here we are, hurting but unbroken. Despite everything, we are still laughing, dreaming, enjoying ourselves and loving and caring for one another. I’ve also learned how deeply we humans affect each other, for good or ill. In these times, it is very clear that every person can make a tremendous difference with small acts of responsibility and kindness. This is always true, not just during pandemics. We can all bring joy and love into our own and other people’s lives. Check in on your friends and acquaintances. Hold your family tight. Spread love. Kindness and community are the most important things, now and always.

 

Yaakov Willner: A Solemn Time of Reflection
YULA Boys High School

No, I won’t be hugging my rabbi on stage at graduation. And no, I won’t be offering that in-person goodbye and thank you to my teachers for their years of dedication. However, this year, maybe I can express a different goodbye. 

The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chayim 492) mentions a custom to establish three fast days after the holidays of Pesach and Sukkot. On the surface, this seems confusing. Why establish solemn days juxtaposed to the jubilant festivals? Why not allow the joyous holiday feelings to continue? Perhaps the answer is that to fully appreciate the holiday joy, we need a few serious, focused days to reflect. The juxtaposition of fast days to holidays only intensifies the joy. 

During the past few months of high school, we have experienced our solemn time of reflection — isolation from our peers and teachers, remote Zoom classes and  cancellation of senior trips. However, this situation gives us the opportunity to appreciate the “joyous festival” it succeeds. By taking this unique time to reflect on our past experiences, our goodbyes this year, while distant, will only strengthen all those relationships we’ve made and missed. 

 

Abigail Yadegar: Recognizing Loss Gives Our Lives Meaning
Milken Community Schools

My chief rabbi recently remarked that beauty is revealed through “taking away,” just as marble sculptures are created through the careful removal of stone from the complete slab to reveal beautiful forms. From this pandemic, I have learned that loss enables us to recognize what gives our lives meaning. While it is disappointing to be stripped of senior traditions, such losses have made me even more grateful for what truly matters: my supportive family, teachers and friends, and above all, our health. Moreover, I have been able to use my newfound free time to connect with others, leading weekly, philosophical talks connecting Jews in L.A. with Jews in London and Mexico, organizing Shabbat discussions with Holocaust survivors as a chair of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust teen board, and collaborating with creative friends who share my love of music to create virtual choir videos and piano-voice duets. Such experiences of actively engaging with my community sustain and inspire me. 

Next year, I will continue my education at Yale University, where I hope to double major in art history and Jewish studies. Beyond college, I hope to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary and become a rabbi-cantor, so that I may continue my Jewish and musical learning and contribute to the Jewish future for all of my communities. 

Samuel Kohanteb: Enjoying the Process
Valley Torah High School

Who would have thought that after four years of hard work studying for tests and quizzes along with those late nights spent writing essays, the Class of 2020 wouldn’t even be able to walk down the graduation aisle in front of friends and family to celebrate this joyous event?

The answer to that is simple: no one. However, although we, the Class of 2020, won’t be able to experience a normal graduation ceremony, we will always cherish the memories made over these past four years. I have realized that life is about enjoying the process that takes you to your goal. These past few years at Valley Torah High School has shown me the importance of “enjoying the process” and cherishing the memories made with friends, teachers, and Rebbeim. Whether it be on a school trip to Utah or enjoying a school wide barbecue alongside friends and Rebbeim, I can certainly say that these past four years have truly shown me to just enjoy the process because sometimes it won’t end the way you want it to.

 

Aaron Imanoel: Living Each Day to the Maximum
Valley Torah High School
I missed out on participating in YU’s annual Sarachek tournament. Yes, I missed out on having a senior trip. And yes, I missed out on having an in-person graduation. However, I refuse to become depressed during these unprecedented times.
Over the past three months, I was able to reflect on my four years at Valley Torah High School. Although there was much more that I could’ve done, I know that for the most part, I took advantage of what many say is the best chapter of my life: high school. When life gets back to normal, we should all take time and show appreciation to our schools, teachers and most importantly, our friends. There is no guarantee for the future, which is why each and every day should be maximized. If you are ever hesitant to join your school’s sports team, show some gratitude to your teachers, or attend a gathering with your friends, always remember to just do it because there are no promises for tomorrow.

Abbie Sagadencky: Ready to Take on the World
de Toledo High School
In high school, I learned to overcome extreme grief, fear and loss. In high school I also learned inexplicable happiness, endless joy and experienced euphoria. In high school, a new president was inaugurated, protests swept the country during my freshman, sophomore and senior year, anti-Semitism rose and a pandemic hit.
My high school experience can be looked back upon in sequence with major historical  events that forever changed both America and the globe. But, alongside these revolutionary changes, I grew up. I feel ready, shockingly more so now than ever before, to take on the world. Upon graduation, I plan on spending my first semester in Israel and then starting at Tulane University in January. I am ready to allow both my morals and my passion to profess to the world that I can’t wait to shake things up, the same way things were shaken up during my formative years in high school. I wish I could have hugged my teachers and friends goodbye as I enter this new chapter of my life, but I knew if I waited any longer, I would never be able to leave my second home, de Toledo High School.
Moshe Litenatsky: Learning from What We Lost
Valley Torah High School
I don’t think any senior could have imagined the year ending in such an unceremonious fashion. For us, the last few months of senior year represent the final time to part with the schools which have shaped our lives forever.
I believe that it would be impossible for me to have become the person I am today without the guidance of my Rabbeim, teachers and administrators from Valley Torah. They have impacted my life more than they will ever know and honestly, more than I will ever be able to know. What I have learned from this abrupt ending to my high school career is to never take advantage of a moment to bond with friends, connect with Rabbeim and teachers and to always appreciate what we do have. While we can sit and lament what we have lost, I am a firm believer that we as seniors, we as Jews and we as humans, must learn from what we have lost. When the city, country and world begin to reopen, we must appreciate the gifts that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has given us and revitalize the world with positivity, happiness and camaraderie.
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