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.
"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.