December 10, 2018

Going Her Way

Haviva Kohl is two people. She is, at 18, the idealistic young woman, fresh from her high school graduation, eager to live her dreams. And she is, at 18, the toughened outsider, wise to the ways of the world, even a bit exhausted by it all.

For the past six years, Kohl has been on her own. Not because she had to be but because she wanted to be. It was the only way she could receive a Jewish education.

When she was 12 years old, Kohl told her parents that she wanted to go to a Jewish school. Up until then, Kohl was a fairly regular kid. But when a skating accident upset her dream of becoming a competition speed skater, she began, in her words, “to hang out with bad people.” Her parents sent her to a Chabad-sponsored Jewish summer camp in New York. Kohl met the late Chabad leader, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. “He gave me his blessing to go to Jewish school,” she says. For the next long, hard six years, she would draw strength from that blessing.

For a while, her mother, Sandra Martin, awoke at 4:30 each school morning to drive Kohl the 60 miles from the family’s home in Rancho Cucamonga to Bais Chaim Mushke School for Girls in Pico-Roberston. Martin worked at a nearby supermarket all day and then drove Haviva back at night. Both would often become sick from exhaustion, keeping such an arduous schedule. Both realized that Kohl would have to leave home.

While Kohl strained to keep up with schoolwork, she began living as a boarder with local Jewish families. Over the next few years, she would inhabit a broad cross section of Los Angeles Jewish life, serving as housekeeper, cook, baby sitter, nanny, driver, surrogate daughter and stepsister.

She stayed with a Beverly Hills doctor and his wife and four children in a massive home that contained an indoor pool and an elevator. She stayed with a deeply religious family with eight children while the father battled a severe drug addiction. Many nights, when the man’s temper spilled out, she would run from the house and hide at a friend’s until 4 a.m. Kohl stayed with an elderly woman who relied on her boarder to bathe her, and whose screams for help would awaken Kohl night after night. Kohl looked after dozens of children not much younger than herself, and she learned to cope with the inevitable jealousies and resentments.

“Just when you feel like part of the family, they’d remind you that you aren’t,” she says. “The biggest problem was figuring out, ‘Where do I belong?'”

And every day, she woke up and went to school. Eventually, Kohl applied to Shalhevet, a coed observant high school located in the Westside Jewish Community Center. Shalhevet’s president and founder, Dr. Jerry Friedman, told her that if she passed the entrance test, she needn’t worry about coming up with the $10,000 annual tuition.

“I saw she wanted a Jewish education, and she was motivated,” says Friedman, who is proud of the fact that his school has never refused admission based on inability to pay.

Kohl excelled. She was one of two Shalhevet students picked to attend a summer session at Oxford University. At graduation, she was awarded the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Torah and Mitzvah Award for outstanding community service and excellence in Judaic studies. In what free time she had, Kohl volunteered at a teen suicide hot line.

“Haviva is very rare, in a good sense,” says Shalhevet’s principal for general education, Michael Parmer.

Sitting for an interview at a bookstore coffeehouse, Kohl acknowledged that her single-minded devotion to get a Jewish education came at a price.

“I gave up my childhood,” she says. Just saying the words seems to bring a shadow of age across her youthful face. She called a journalist to tell her story, she says, so that other students won’t take their own Jewish education for granted. “People say, ‘What’s the big deal about going to school,'” she says. “I know this may have been the hardest thing I’ll ever do in my life.”

At first, she visited her family once a week. Eventually, the visits dwindled to once a month or less. She missed growing up with her two younger brothers. She rarely saw her father, a musician who was often on tour.

“I would come home and not know where the dishes were,” she says.

Back at home, she would still visit her old friends. Many were beset with the teen plagues of early pregnancy and drugs. She’d hang out with them at Sunday skateboard competitions, even help them build their ramps. But, always, she dressed in the long, modest skirts of an Orthodox woman.

At school, she missed out on after-school activities and parties. Between work and school, she had almost no time for a social life.

“She had to carry a burden,” says Friedman, who related that only one other Shalhevet student, a freshman, has moved away from home to attend school. “It’s a tough life, and because of it, she matured faster than other teen-agers. You have to admire that.”

Kohl gives much of the credit for her success to her mother, who remained supportive.

“I felt it was the best thing,” says Martin. Martin’s own parents and siblings disagreed, but she says that she raised her children to be independent and follow their dreams.

And, Kohl says, that’s what she intends to do. After graduation, she plans to travel to Israel and perhaps around the world. She wants to attend Oxford University, where she was granted delayed admission, and set up Jewish schools in Eastern Europe.

“The people I most respect,” she says, “are the people who know what they want to do and don’t let anything stop them.”