Matthew Minsk and Kira Mermelstein, Atlanta Jewish Academy’s valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively, are closing out their high school careers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pair will graduate May 26, and the past 14 months have been marked by virtual instruction followed by a return to classes this past fall, albeit with face coverings and social distancing.
“Obviously, it’s less than ideal. Nobody wants your senior year to be in this whole hullabaloo … with all these restrictions and stuff,” Minsk said, adding he’s grateful the school returned to in-person instruction in October since some public schools did not get back to face-to-face classes until February.
Mermelstein added, “Nobody wants their senior year to have a mask in front of it. I’ve been really lucky, though. A lot of the extracurriculars that I’m involved in, like theatre, (it’s) very last minute, but we’ve been able to kind of push through and still be involved a little bit. So I’m really lucky for that, to be able to be here with my friends in some capacity. But obviously it’s un-ideal. It messes with the fun stuff you’re supposed to do your senior year.”
Both seniors are straight-A students. Minsk, who scored a 36 on the ACT score and a 1570 on the SAT, will attend Yeshiva University in New York this fall. He’s undecided on a major. Mermelstein, who scored a 1400 on the SAT, is heading to the University of Georgia in Athens in July. She plans to major in journalism and communications.
Joel Rojek, the academy’s general studies instructional leader for its high school, taught both Minsk and Mermelstein in his sophomore Advanced Placement English language class. During their senior year, Rojek has taught Minsk in an independent study English class and Mermelstein in an honors contemporary literature class.
“When I think about Kira, she’s a uniter,” Rojek said. “She draws people together and helps the group perform at a high level. My best example of that is every year we have an all-girls school musical called ‘Chagiga,’ and this year, on very short notice, because we didn’t get clearance until the last minute, she came up with what the show was going to be and is the director. On top of that, she’s the technical person and coordinating the lights and the sound. She made the show happen almost through sheer will, and to have a wonderful community event was great.
“She’s not somebody to do things to get glory or get in the spotlight. … She wants to invest in the community so the community can be better. You can see her helping her peers with homework assignments or group projects. If it’ s a class discussion, she likes to facilitate the discussion to help everyone get something out of it instead of dominate it. She really thinks what’s best for the group and that drives her in her decision-making processes.”
Of Minsk, Rojek said, “He really takes his learning seriously, and I mean that in terms of Judaic studies, general studies. Whatever he’s studying, he wants to get as much out of it as possible and sees the value of just poring himself into the task at hand or the study the class is having. He’s a rare student who really wants to maximize every day and every opportunity to learn.”
Minsk is editor of the academy’s magazine, The Palette, which Rojek serves as the main teacher for. The academy entered the publication in a national contest through the Jewish Scholastic Press Association, and of the six awards it won, Minsk captured three of them.
“He … really produced some amazing work and some really impressive articles,” Rojek said. “… His work was at a really high level, but as an editor he also was just managing the workload making sure everybody was contributing at a high level.”
Both students won the Yeshiva University Torah Umada Book Award (for excellence in Judaic studies). Minsk is the academy’s STAR Student (given to the senior with the highest SAT score), and Mermelstein received the Harvard Book Award (presented to the most outstanding 11th-grade humanities student at the academy).
Both seniors said the thing they’ll remember most about high school is what Mermelstein calls the “close-knit environment” the academy provided, including their teachers. Their class has only 16 students, and the academy has nearly 500 in grades K-12 and about 85 in the high school.
“Being in a small school we have, it’s a really comfortable environment,” Minsk said, adding he loves “the ability to walk in every day at this school and know everybody and be able to hang out with my friends.”
Mermelstein added. “I know every teacher’s name. They all know my name. I walk into a classroom and they’ve taught my brother. They know my family. … We build a really strong connection between the faculty and the students, and then on top of that, we build a really strong connection between each other.”