A girl poses in the cap and gown of her graduation outfit in poppy fields near the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve on April 16, 2020 in Lancaster, California, where the annual spring bloom is underway.  (Photo/JTA-AFP via Getty Images-Frederic J. Brown)
A girl poses in the cap and gown of her graduation outfit in poppy fields near the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve on April 16, 2020 in Lancaster, California, where the annual spring bloom is underway. (Photo/JTA-AFP via Getty Images-Frederic J. Brown)

High school graduation and then… college? Here’s what local Jewish corona-grads are planning.

At this time of year, most graduating high school seniors are anticipating a huge, exciting life change as they prepare to go off to college. But nothing is usual in the era of coronavirus. Many U.S. colleges have not decided whether they will open fully or partway in the fall, and how many classes they will conduct virtually. The uncertainty has led to a flurry of applications to gap-year programs from young people who would rather hold out for the usual freshman college experience. Others aren’t letting the pandemic change their plans. J. spoke to Jewish high school grads from around the Bay Area to learn what they have decided and why.

Jewish social justice work in Oregon, then off to Brandeis

Leo Belman already knew he wasn’t going to college — at least, not yet. The senior at Redwood City’s Design Tech had gap-year plans in mind when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“Honestly, the pandemic didn’t really factor into it,” he said, “which is kind of funny.”

Belman is spending next year at Tivnu, a Jewish social justice program for young people in Portland, Oregon. He is following in the footsteps of his older brother, who also took a year to volunteer with Tivnu before college, and deferring his acceptance to Brandeis University.

“My parents always said gap years were great experiences, and they were sad they didn’t take one,” he said.

Leo Belman with Picasso the pug.
Leo Belman with Picasso the pug.

It’s a fortuitous choice, he admits. A lot of his peers are facing a first year at university that probably will not be anything like they expected, while Belman, come Sept. 1, will be doing just what he expected to do: living in a house with around a dozen others, volunteering at Portland charities and nonprofits. But it wasn’t an obvious choice at first, even though his brother had done the program.

“He was playing the salesman all last year, trying to get me to go to Tivnu,” Belman said, adding with a laugh that “it was actually when he stopped pestering me, I started to get interested.”

“I woke up one morning, very sure in my mind what I wanted to do,” he said. “Throughout my life I’ve been very social justice-oriented.”

Belman, who moved from Brooklyn five years ago and never “completely melded with the California vibe thing,” said he hopes he can make a real difference at Tivnu, “instead of being, like, hey, you’re not recycling that plastic bag!”

He said taking a gap year wasn’t all that common among his classmates at Design Tech, a charter school. “I think a lot of people are confused by the idea of a gap year,” he said.

But the more he thought about it, the more attractive it became, especially after he initially was waitlisted at his first-pick colleges.

“A gap year is something I’m doing myself because I want this experience, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s finishing out his final semester at Design Tech. He said he’s personally not too upset by the way the end of his school year was truncated.

“It’s just, like, a weird thing for it to be cut,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world. I’m still able to hang out with my friends virtually.” — Maya Mirsky

College in the high desert where isolation is the norm

Here’s a college experience most people have never heard of: learning in relative isolation for two years, surrounded by the same, small group of people for long stretches of time, in the high desert where there is limited access to the outside world.

For Annie Kelley, a senior at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, it’s exactly the college experience she’s looking for.

Kelley will be attending Deep Springs College next semester. Describing this institution as “unique” does not do it justice.

The two-year college is remote. Really remote. Located in eastern California near the Nevada border, it’s nestled in Deep Springs Valley, with the closest town (which is pretty small, too) an hour’s drive away and Death Valley National Park two hours south. There are about 30 students total, all of whom are required to work at the college’s cattle ranch for four hours every weekday.

Annie Kelley will attend Deep Springs College in remote eastern California.
Annie Kelley will attend Deep Springs College in remote eastern California.

“It’s a very odd school,” Kelley admitted. “It’s definitely an odd choice, but it’s a choice I’ve been committed to.”

Kelley, who has struggled with sensory issues her whole life, especially crowds and loud noises like airplanes and traffic, said she was pretty certain she was going to choose Deep Springs before the pandemic started, and that recent developments have only reaffirmed her decision.

“I think we’re so isolated now,” she said. “It’s really reminded me of how much I want to learn. How much there is to learn about community building.”

Kelley is looking forward to classes about ecology and agriculture, as well as delving into the college’s three pillars: labor, self-governance and academics.

“All of those really appeal to me,” said Kelley, who admitted that “Deep Springs is built around things that many people wouldn’t enjoy in a college experience.”

Founded in 1917 by an electricity tycoon and philanthropist L.L. Nunn, Deep Springs College puts its students in charge of milking cows, setting gopher traps and collecting bales of alfalfa. The school just recently started admitting female students after a court decision in 2017.

There are some challenges for Deep Springs students — for instance, getting home. It’s a 7½-hour drive to the Bay Area, and taking an airplane doesn’t make the journey any faster.

Kelley said the college is hoping to start the program on July 3, but that the date may be pushed back because of the pandemic.

She believes the experience at Deep Springs will be like a “military school but for philosophy majors” and a “very interesting experiment.” — Gabriel Greschler

Escape to Fiji, then yeshiva in Israel — but future is now in flux

Given the chaos triggered by the coronavirus, Jacob Stadtner would be forgiven for feeling panicked these days. Instead, the 18-year-old says with a touch of dry wit, “This has been a very interesting start to my adult life.”

Set to graduate from Jewish Community High School in San Francisco, Stadtner had an exciting few months planned: a trip to Fiji followed by enrollment in Lev HaTorah, an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel.

Now, says the San Anselmo teen, “Not only do I have no idea where I’m going to college, I have no idea when I’ll start or how this will set me back for my future career.”

Though the yeshiva has announced it will likely be open this fall, Stadtner says classes might be conducted via distance learning. On top of that, Israel had been mandating a 14-day quarantine for all visitors, a policy that may still be in place in the fall. Uncertainties are piling up.

“If I can go, I will go,” he says. “If not, I’ve been thinking of working in the city, and postponing my year at yeshiva.”

Jacob Stadner’s plans to study in yeshiva are pending.
Jacob Stadner’s plans to study in yeshiva are pending.

Stadtner attended Brandeis Marin before going to JCHS. His family belongs to Congregation Kol Shofar, a Conservative shul in Tiburon where he had his bar mitzvah, but by 11th grade he had grown more observant, especially after getting involved with NCSY, a national Orthodox youth organization.  He considers himself Modern Orthodox, the only one in his family to identify that way. Though they fully support his Jewish journey, he says, keeping kosher in a nonkosher home is a challenge, especially under lockdown. “I’m here 24/7. It’s a lot more labor intensive, and keeping Shabbat is a very big challenge. I have to do everything on my own.”

Also proving challenging is separation from his friends, something especially hard on people his age.

“My class especially has been known for being tight-knit,” Stadtner says. “Some of my best friends go to school with me at JCHS, and it’s really difficult knowing this is my last year and not being able to see them, hang out or have a prom. Because of [the lockdown] there are people I may never see again in my class.”

Stadtner, who is considering the rabbinate as a career option, says the last few months have given him “time to understand who I am as Jew in this society. I’ve been putting a lot of time into reading Jewish texts. It’s been a blessing to read about Jewish issues and have them apply to issues we’re facing.”

One thing he has concluded after 10 weeks of shelter-in-place is what he calls the “importance of community and reaching out. I’ve noticed people are struggling through this. It’s been a huge mental crisis for a lot of people.”

He says simple acts of kindness, like texting friends to see how they are doing, can make a difference. “People have been thinking about existentialism, and where they fit into this world.”

The reason why is clear to Stadtner. “People,” he says, “have time to think.” Dan Pine

Ready to hit ground running on politics, health care policy

Calista Sperry was on the phone last week when she saw one of her favorite teachers from Saint Mary’s College High School parking in front of her house.

“Oh, it’s Mr. Rogers, with my cap and gown!” she exclaimed. “Call ya right back!”

The teachers at the private high school in North Berkeley were driving all over town distributing the apparel so that their seniors — graduation plans derailed by the coronavirus — could take part in an improvised virtual ceremony. And Calista, who is all set to attend Mount Holyoke College in the fall, was happy to roll with it.

Rolling with it is something the 17-year-old from Berkeley has done since early life. As a toddler, she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents. In fourth grade, she found herself attending an international school in Buenos Aires while her grandparents learned to tango. (She did, too.) And her choice of high schools suddenly made her a minority — one of a small number of Jewish students in a Catholic milieu.

Calista Sperry will be attending Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Calista Sperry will be attending Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

“It was a daunting experience for me at first,” she said. “But my relationship to my Judaism changed over the four years. The first two, we studied Christianity, and I felt myself constantly wanting to defend my religion and to bring it into the conversation in class. I didn’t want it to be overlooked.

“But the next two years were a celebration of all different cultures and faiths, and I kind of … eased up,” she said.

Another change of direction resulted from a summer experience as a medical volunteer in Kenya. She went into it intent on having a medical career and came out more interested in politics.

“It was intense, and made me become interested in how different societies and governments function,” she said.

Heading into junior year, she took Fred Rogers’ AP U.S. History course, followed by his AP Government and Politics class this year, and that completed her swerve.

“It changed my career focus, toward understanding what is behind health care policies and the practice of medicine,” she said.

What could be more relevant for a student graduating into the world of a pandemic?

“For someone like me, who obsessed about her future, it’s surreal to not have any clue what’s going to happen; it’s very scary,” she admits. Although the current situation “cemented for me how unpredictable everything is,” she plans to pursue her interests in history, political science and international relations at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, come what may.

“High school is mostly about learning to make life choices. The purpose is to prepare you for the world,” she reflected. “Then came the virus, and everything was put on pause, and we literally had no choice about anything. I think what I learned is that the only thing you have control over is your own mindset. That is the only power you really have.” — Laura Paull

From a fabulous gap year in Israel to … nothing

For Gabey Kaufman-Cohen, the timing of the pandemic is just rotten.

“In my life, so far, this is the worst possible [timing] that could have happened,” the 18-year-old Oakland resident said.

Gabey Kaufman-Cohen was hoping to spend next year in Israel.
Gabey Kaufman-Cohen was hoping to spend next year in Israel.

Kaufman-Cohen, a senior at Oakland Tech, had a lot planned for the next few months. While enjoying the end of his high school days, he was going to step on stage for the final time as part of his school’s acting company. Then he was going to get ready to spend nine months in Israel as a gap-year volunteer with Habonim Dror, the socialist Zionist youth group.

Instead, he faces a year of essentially just waiting — waiting to apply to university, waiting for the end of shelter-in-place, waiting for the next stage of his life.

“I didn’t leave myself a whole lot of backup plans,” he said.

Kaufman-Cohen was looking forward to the experience in Israel, where he’d learn Hebrew on a kibbutz, live in a city with other young people while engaging in service learning, and take a weeklong trip to Poland. But Covid-19 has made that dream all but unreachable.

Though Habonim Dror hasn’t canceled the gap-year program, Kaufman-Cohen said so many participants have pulled out that in all likelihood it is no longer feasible. And he can’t just go to university instead — rather than applying to colleges during his senior year and requesting a deferral, he had planned to apply this year.

All of that leaves him without a lot of options for now. “You can’t really travel,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs.”

So he’ll mostly be hanging out at home and spending time with his two brothers, one of whom is home from college during shelter-in-place. He’ll probably take some classes at a Cal State University, as well.

“I don’t really want to spend all that time sitting on the couch, waiting for things to happen,” he said.

He’s making the best of it, but he does admit it’s a letdown.

I try not to think about it too much,” Kaufman-Cohen said. “People talk about this could go on — it could be a year or two.”

He is also missing out on Oakland Tech’s final play, one in which he was to play the title role. “Mr. Burns” is a darkly satirical 2012 work by playwright Anne Washburn that takes place in a devastated future, where survivors re-enact an iconic “Simpsons” episode.

The play’s theme “is kind of ironic, because it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world,” he said. “There are a lot of eerie parallels.” — Maya Mirsky

Deferring Dartmouth to work with at-risk kids

Amid all of the apprehension about the post-pandemic future, Lowell High School senior Sarah Berman is certain of this: She wants to work in either global health, gender studies or education reform.

Now she has the opportunity to do so. Berman, who was accepted to Dartmouth College in December, is choosing to defer her enrollment and take part in a gap year, an increasingly popular alternative among graduating American high schoolers who usually spend the time working, volunteering or traveling.

Berman will be participating in City Year, an AmeriCorps program where she will be a teacher’s assistant for at-risk youth at elementary schools in the San Jose area. She’s got excellent experience under her belt working with kids at Kumon, an afterschool math and reading program with learning centers across the country.

While her family lives in San Francisco, Berman said she most likely will be working and living with roommates in San Jose, and then seeing her family on the weekends.

Sarah Berman is taking a gap year with City Year, teaching in San Jose.
Sarah Berman is taking a gap year with City Year, teaching in San Jose.

Berman’s decision to take a gap year was twofold. For one, she didn’t want to just jump into college right after graduating from high school.

“I mostly want some space to experience things apart from academics,” she said. “I’m going to be stuck in school for the next four years. Devoting a year to service is going to get me connected to my own values and [allow me to] figure out myself more.”

At the same time, Berman said the gap year was a much better choice during the pandemic, for a number of reasons. If a second wave of the coronavirus comes in the fall — epidemiologists say it’s a real possibility — Berman believes it will be better to be closer to her family rather than at school in New Hampshire. She’s also skeptical about paying private school tuition if there’s a chance her classes will be online. (Dartmouth has yet to make the decision whether fall semester will be in person or virtual.)

Gap-year websites and associations say they’ve had increased traffic this spring, as fewer graduating high school seniors see going to college during a pandemic as a good option, according to the Washington Post. Berman said her program, City Year, has yet to inform her whether she’ll be doing her teaching assistant job virtually or in person.

Berman says she’d do the gap year regardless of the pandemic, and is looking forward to how the experience will end up carving out a career path for her.

“If I find this particularly rewarding, I could do more work in college for at-risk youth,” she said. “I see the educational inequities that occur because of lack of funding [schools]. I want to take steps to reduce that.” — Gabriel Greschler

Confronting the unknown through a Jewish lens

Ethan Finestone has a philosophical take on the disruption the coronavirus pandemic has created in his life. “I’m a big believer in what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said the 18-year-old San Rafael resident. “What makes people amazing is we always bounce back.”

A senior at San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School, Finestone hopes his post-graduation plans will bounce back, too. He was supposed to take a gap year in Israel in a program sponsored by Young Judaea, dividing his time between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The immersive, nine-month Israel experience includes Hebrew language, Judaic and Israel studies.

Now, because of the pandemic, Finestone isn’t sure the program will go forward, at least not as designed.

Ethan Finestone was set to spend a gap year in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Ethan Finestone was set to spend a gap year in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“As of now, they say it’s still on but still up in the air,” he said. “A lot of the program is interacting with different people and spending time with them. Certain aspects could be changed. Who knows what a classroom will look like after this? Will there even be classrooms?”

With his plans uncertain, Finestone is remaining in lockdown at home with his family. When the shelter-in-place order came down, he struggled at first, but a few weeks in, he developed a daily schedule, including staying in touch with friends, reviving his Hebrew-language studies (thanks to phone apps) and playing piano.

Though he says his school handled the disaster well, converting to remote learning and making sure students had what they needed to succeed, Finestone said the last three months have been hard for him and his peers.

“You have a lot of time at home, which is stressful for kids, not being able to see their friends,” he said. “It can be difficult being at home all day with the family, with no release like sports.”

Finestone has attended Jewish day schools his whole life. His father is Barry Finestone, former executive director at the JCC in San Francisco and current president/CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation. The young Finestone said his Jewish identity is “a big part of my life. My dad always used to tell me Judaism is more than just a set of laws and words to live by; it’s a way to look at your life through a lens.”

That lens is helping him to better cope with the shock of a pandemic that turned his world upside-down. “In the future,” he predicted, “people will take viruses like this much more seriously.” Dan Pine