Getting through high school is hard enough for many teenagers. But two Bay Area Jewish high school graduates faced — and overcame — particularly daunting challenges.
For one, the challenge was moving to an unfamiliar country to build a new life with few resources; for the other, it was surmounting prejudice against his nontraditional family. Both say their Jewish high schools — Hebrew Academy and Jewish Community High School of the Bay — helped them come into their own.
Born in Russia, Vitaly Morozov moved to the United States with his mother when he was 6. His parents had divorced when he was 5.
Settling in San Francisco, where a relative lived, they had few options. The relative found them a studio apartment, where they stayed for a year and a half; Morozov and his mother moved three more times over the next six years.
“We didn’t have much,” Morozov said. “In our second [apartment], there was a boy my age. That was a warm welcome.”
Surrounded by Russian-speaking family and neighbors, language wasn’t an issue until he started school. At the Hebrew Academy, he went straight into the English as a second language class. It took him all of a month to catch up with his peers.
He said he found a second home at Hebrew Academy. “We’re very close,” he said. “It’s like developing another family, especially because 90 percent of the students are Russian. They understand you and you understand them.”
All that is true, said Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, the school’s dean. But Morozov brings something special to the table. Teachers call it brilliance.
“The fact is the kids as a group are very bright and highly motivated,” Lipner said. “We are very structured. We expect good behavior. And he is very nice. He is No. 1 in his class among some very, very, very bright kids. We are very, very proud of him.”
His junior year was especially hard, although the average two to three hours of work he put in each night might sound light considering his level of achievement.
Now 18, Morozov is his class valedictorian, bound for UCLA in the fall where he might study business economics.
While he was developing his own talents, his mother carved out a career as a social worker, also teaching Russian part time. Morozov was astonished when she drove home in a new 2012 car, unaware that she had been quietly building her financial profile.
“I’m very proud of her,” he said.
When he was in the eighth grade, Morozov and his mother had the chance to revisit his childhood home: Rzhev, a city of 60,000, called the first town on the Volga River.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I was worried it would be really awkward, but it was great.”
Elijah Jatovsky, 18, did not grow up a world away, but rather in San Francisco, where he split his time between the homes of his lesbian mother and his gay father, who had agreed to partner so they could have a much-wanted child.
Jatovsky celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. He and his mother, a nurse practitioner and researcher, also spent six months on a kibbutz.
“My four years at Jewish Community High School were incredibly formative,” said the graduating senior, who is headed to Georgetown University in the fall, where he will major in politics or economics. “I came from a middle school where I felt very insecure. I didn’t know much about who I am.”
Over the past four years, Jatovsky grew into a natural role as student body president and “a thoughtful, caring and committed leader,” in the words of college adviser Geoff Smith.
Jatovsky credits the school’s nurturing for that growth and for imbuing him with the confidence to pursue and win a coveted position as a congressional page for House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
During his time in Washington, he was confronted by bias against homosexuality. Many of his fellow pages expressed blatant homophobia. One joked that he would be the first in line with a shotgun if the nation elected a gay president.
“At first, I would stomp out of the room, grumbling about how backward these pages were,” Jatovsky said. But he knew that changing opinion requires changing hearts as well as minds, and that can only be done with respectful communication.
One night, as the pages gathered for a gabfest, he posed the question: Isn’t the fight to overcome homophobia the same as the struggle for civil rights, or the movement to gain equality for women?
“They said, this is different, because gay people have a choice. I asked, what about their children? They said, well, they are probably immoral, too. [But] we had become friends, and they knew I was not an immoral person. So I asked them, what if I told you my parents were gay?”
On their last night in Washington, the pages wrote notes to each other. One who had been the most outspokenly homophobic wrote, “You changed my views of San Francisco. They may be liberals, but they are OK peeps.”
The statement enjoys a prominent place on Jatovsky’s wall — a tribute, he says, to respectful communication.
“He is infused with a real idealism and optimism,” said his dad, Ron Lezell, a financial consultant and former regional vice president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
As part of his senior project, Jatovsky created NatCon (NationalConnect.org), which pairs schools across the country to connect students and “ensure that this generation and future leaders know how to communicate with those who are different or with whom they may disagree.”
“He is one of the most politically aware students in the school,” said Smith.
Jatovsky said he is “just so grateful that I spent the last four years” at JCHS.
“The minute you walk through the door, there is a tangible feeling, you can breathe in the encouragement people feel for you. It supports a kid’s passions.”