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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.

 

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Many ways to learn

Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey reboots its adult ed program

We don’t know much yet about the findings of the soon-to-be-released survey by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, but there is one nugget that already has been made public.

Jewish adults hunger to know more. Their desire for Jewish learning continues to grow. Jewish educators and leaders know that to be true intuitively, and that understanding is borne out in the proliferation of programs and institutes around the area.

Until recently, the federation has fed that hunger with its Melton program. For years now, the Florence Melton program has brought its two-year, pluralistic, in-depth lessons to synagogue classrooms across the region. But nothing lasts forever, and the Melton program has now ended locally — as it has, in fact, in many of the other places that once hosted it.

 

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Bone marrow donor, recipient to meet

At the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation’s third annual Walk for Life in Memory of Mel Cohen on Sunday, October 26, a 23-year-old Englewood bone-marrow donor will meet his 43-year-old recipient for the first time since the successful procedure was done, more than a year ago.

These emotional meetings are a highlight of the annual walk, Gift of Life’s CFO, Gregg Frances, said. “Every year at these events we introduce a donor who has never, until that point, met the recipient whose life he or she saved. There’s a one-year moratorium from the date of transplant to the date of meeting, as legislated by the United States.”

 

Teens: Don’t drink on Simchat Torah

Local yeshiva high schools send joint letter urging celebration but also restraint

The principals of six Jewish high schools serving northern New Jersey sent a joint letter to parents urging vigilance in the face of teenage drinking on Simchat Torah, “to guarantee that this special time of holiness will not degenerate into the opposite kind of experience for anyone.”

Nobody is sure how alcohol consumption became a tradition of this holiday, which celebrates the completion of the yearly Torah-reading cycle.

“There are rabbinic sources about drinking wine in the context of the Purim seudah,” or meal, says Teaneck’s Rabbi Michael Taubes, head of school for the Yeshiva University High School for Boys, and one of the six signatories.

 
 
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