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Area teen named Kukin fellow

 
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Teaneck teenager has been chosen as one of two '006 fellows of the Society of Kukin, an annual incentive award for high school seniors who are committed to high academic performance and the Jewish community.

Meena Viswanath of Teaneck was selected as one of two fellows by the Livingston-based society. (The other is Zahava Stadler of Hillside.) Meena, 17, graduated this year from the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. In the fall of '007, she will start her studies at MIT where she hopes to major in an area of engineering, possibly mechanical or aerospace. At the end of the month she will leave for 10 months of study in Jerusalem.

Meena's Jewish identity has been a defining part of her life since she was born.


Meena Viswanath

"Being an Orthodox Jew is a very important part of my life," Meena said. "I'm surrounded by Judaism."

She's also been surrounded by her father's culture.

Meena grew up in a multilingual household; her mother, Gitl, is fluent in Yiddish, while her father, Meylekh, is from India and fluent in Tamil. As Meena was growing up, she spoke one of those two languages at home, usually Yiddish with her mother and Tamil with her father. Family members rarely spoke English at home unless they were having guests.

"Having both cultures has had a big impact on my personality," Meena said. Yiddish has been particularly important to her and she is completing a summer program at NYU in Yiddish culture, language, and literature. Until she started pre-kindergarten at Yavneh, Meena actually spoke very little English. She plans to keep up with both languages with her parents and speak to her own future children in Yiddish.

"My husband and I were very devoted to continuing our respective cultures," Gitl Viswanath said. "I would speak Yiddish and he would speak Tamil. We wouldn't accept answering in English." All of their three children were raised in the same way and by the time each reached the age of ', Viswanath said, they knew the difference between Yiddish and Tamil. Being named a Kukin Society fellow has been "a wonderful gift" to her daughter, Viswanath said.

"We were thrilled. You always hope your child will get some kind of scholarship," she said. "We hope that Meena's going to continue to bring us lots of nachas."

The Kukin Society will provide Meena with a $4,000 scholarship for up to four years in college. She has also been inducted as a lifetime member of the Society of Kukin, which lists 45 fellows since its inception in 1984.

Fellows must have a minimum SAT score of 1440 and high grades, as well as a notable devotion to the Jewish community. Meena also sent in recommendations from her rabbi, principal, and guidance counselor. The scholarship is restricted to residents of Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Passaic, and Union counties.

"What we look for is future Jewish leadership," said Ira Kukin, founding benefactor of the Society of Kukin. "Who will impart the torch of Judaic ideals in the future to their communities? That's what we look for."

Kukin set up the society with Rabbi Alvin Marcus as a way to honor some high school students in West Orange and provide an opportunity for further learning. Eventually, the society started receiving requests from the Teaneck and Englewood areas, as well as Morris County, to expand its program. A majority of the candidates actually come from the Englewood and Teaneck areas, Kukin said.

The society provides its fellows with opportunities for networking and discussions throughout the year so that "the older members pass their torch of learning down to the newest members," Kukin said.

The networking aspect is particularly attractive to Meena. "It's good to have sort of network of connections to put you in touch with people you might not have met otherwise. Networking is basically the most important thing you can do," she said.

 
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Laughing with Joan

I made Joan Rivers laugh.

Of course she made me laugh, like she did to millions of others through her decades-long, often unfiltered, and ever-funny career, but yes, I made Joan Rivers laugh.

At the time, I was working at the celebrity-obsessed New York Post, and as the features writer for its women’s section, I had reason to ring up the raspy-voiced, Brooklyn-born blonde for a quickie. I had to grab a quote for some story that I was writing. As I recall, the conversation had turned to food, a favorite subject of the Jewish woman on my end of the phone, and, apparently, of that Jewish woman on the other end as well. Joan told me that she just adored the creamed spinach served at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant, Peter Luger’s — a must-have accompaniment to its famous and robust steaks. Joan told me she would dine there with a hairdresser-to-the-stars, the late Kenneth Battelle. (She kept her physique petite with this practice: She never ate anything after 3 p.m. If she did find herself dining with someone, she popped Altoids to keep her mouth busy.)

 

Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

Policies are the best policy

Teaneck synagogue forum addresses child sexual abuse

Does your synagogue have policies in place to protect children from sexual abuse? Do your children’s schools and camps?

Such policies, Dr. Shira Berkovits told a meeting in Teaneck on Sunday night, can make a difference to children’s safety.

Dr. Berkovits is a consultant for the Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union, and she is developing a guide to preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues. She was speaking at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, as part of a panel on preventing child sexual abuse co-sponsored by three other Teaneck Orthodox congregations: Netivot Shalom, Keter Torah, and Lubavitch of Bergen County.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Pascrell, Paul face off

Dr. Dierdre Paul, a 49-year-old Montclair State University professor, faces an uphill battle against Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., the 77-year-old nine-term Democratic incumbent in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District.

In a candidate’s forum Monday night at the Community Baptist Church in Englewood, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP, Dr. Paul said that she has not been a Republican for very long.

In fact, in 2008 she had been the Englewood chair of the Obama campaign. “No one hoped more than me that the president would succeed,” she said. “Even as late as 2012 I tried to maintain that hope and faith in the Democratic party. Instead, it was the African American base masking the same old Democratic policies.

“We have a failed war on poverty, a failed war on drugs,” she continued. “Why does the Democratic establishment feel they only need to show up in election time? People are hurting now.”

Mr. Pascrell opened by saying that his “first objective in Congress is to keep us safe. I solemnly swear to each one of you that I will keep us safe against foreign enemies and any domestic enemies who want to take advantage of us.”

 

RCA responds to scandal

Englewood rabbi to head committee looking into conversion process

Shmuel Goldin, the senior rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, has agreed to chair a new committee the Rabbinical Council of America is convening to review its conversion process.

Rabbi Goldin also is the RCA’s immediate past president.

The committee includes 11 members; six are RCA-member rabbis and five are women. Two of the women are converts, one is a yoetzet halacha — an advisor in Jewish law — and one is a psychotherapist.

The committee has been established in response to the arrest of one of the RCA’s members, Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel: The Georgetown Synagogue, in Washington, D.C. (Rabbi Freundel’s RCA membership has been suspended in response to the arrest, and he has been suspended from his job, without pay.) The shul arguably is the most prestigious Orthodox synagogue in the nation’s capital, and Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, for videoing some of his conversion candidates with a camera hidden inside a clock radio as they stripped for the mikvah, has been profoundly disturbing, both within the Kesher community and outside it.

 

Hearing, helping each other

Support groups for people with mood disorders to open in Paramus

A person who has a mood disorder has a chronic, manageable condition.

She is not lazy, not immoral, not self-indulgent. She is not suffering from some embarrassing unmentionable syndrome. She is just one of a large number of people whose body chemistry plunges her into the black hole of depression, or is one of the smaller but not insignificant group of people who swing between that hole and a fierce but unsustainable elation that takes them up into the blue sky until they crash again.

There is a stigma attached to having a mood disorder, though, that makes it hard to address, to attack, to subdue, to co-exist with.

Dena Cohen of Teaneck, a writer, editor, and social activist who writes under her maiden name, Dena Croog, knows this territory well. An op ed contributor to this newspaper, she introduced it to our readers on February 13, when her column, “I have bipolar disorder,” was printed and almost immediately went viral.

 
 
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