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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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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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Mississippi burning, remembered

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It was a summer that changed lives.

It was a fight for American democracy in the face of terrorism.

It was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” and it drew 700 college students and young adults to help Mississippi activists fight for civil rights.

The year was 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson — but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

 

Adding to Jewish life in Clifton

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky heads religious services department at Daughters of Miriam

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky thinks his new position as the director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/Gallen Institute in Clifton is a perfect shidduch.

Actually, it is not quite a new job. Rabbi Mirsky had already worked there with Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, who just retired from the home this month, in the late 1980s. Back then Rabbi Mirsky was studying for simicha — rabbinic ordination. He worked there once again in the 1990s, while he was teaching at various day schools.

“I would come on the weekends for Shabbat and on yom tov to assist Rabbi Kronenberg,” he said. “I would lead davening, give Torah classes, go to the Alzheimer’s unit, and try to engage the residents Jewishly. I had a special rapport with Rabbi Kronenberg and the residents.”

Indeed, then he already was doing many of the things he is doing now as director of religious affairs.

 

Poor assumptions = poor policy

ZOA’s congressional lobbyist talks about Israel, Oslo, and plans doomed to fail

The two-state solution is a chimera, Joshua London says. It is a lovely vision of something that never can be real, and chasing it — chasing the plan that would make Israel and Palestine two separate states, living next to each other in prickly but sustainable peace — is chasing the wind.

Mr. London, who lives in suburban Maryland, is the Zionist Organization of America’s co-director of government affairs. He will be taking a break from his daily routine — lobbying Congress to further the ZOA’s own understanding of the Middle East — to speak at a parlor meeting in Teaneck on Wednesday.

His goal, he said, “is to bring clarity and critical analysis to the longstanding U.S. policy for support of — and in fact to apply pressure toward — the creation of a Palestinian state from territory that otherwise belongs to Israel, and to do so under the notion that this will bring peace.”

 
 
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