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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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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

 

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Standing together with Israel

Local groups join for evening of unity as they discuss ways to protect Israel

Lee Lasher of Englewood has a deep interest in ensuring that different parts of the local Jewish community come to trust, respect, and even like each other.

To that end, Mr. Lasher, an alumnus of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Berrie Fellows Leadership program, and fellow alums — and now friends — Ian Zimmerman of Glen Rock and Ari Hirt of Teaneck, formed a group called Unite4Unity, which until now has explored the bridges that actually do span the community.

Now, the three friends have decided to multitask. Another cause dear to all of them is Israel. What could be better, they thought, than to bring the community together around the Jewish state? And given their own orientation toward action, what would be best would be to give people information they can use to present Israel positively, to combat such threats as BDS with knowledge, insight, and passion.

 

Considering German Jews

Spätzle, weiner schnitzel, stuffed cabbage, and German chocolate cake are on the menu for Shabbat dinner on May 1 at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. It’s all part of the shul’s weekend exploration of German Jewish heritage.

German Jews are known not only for their signature cuisine, however. They tend to have a reputation as “yekkes” — obsessively punctual, punctilious, and a touch pompous.

The shul’s Rabbi Benjamin Shull admits he bought into that stereotype — he is the descendant of Lithuanian Jews — until he discovered through genealogical research that he, too, has German-Jewish ancestors. So do about a third of his regular congregants.

 

Balancing attraction and halachic law

Local Orthodox rabbis meet with therapists and LGBT Jews

On Sunday, some leading Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, met with mental-health professionals and members of the Orthodox gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community for a conference on “sexual orientation and gender identity in the Orthodox and chasidic world,” as a press release put it.

The conference, about 150-strong, held at the Kraft House on Columbia University’s campus, was organized by the modern Orthodox, Upper West Side Lincoln Square Synagogue; the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology; and JQY, a nonprofit that provides support to young LGBT Orthodox and chasidic Jews.

 
 
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