A salute to graduates | Alumni of local Jewish day schools share life tips with new grads

It’s the time of year when high school students don caps and gowns, listen to inspirational speeches at graduation ceremonies and figure out the next steps in their lives. 

But once they get their diplomas and begin the next chapter, it’s easy to lose track, especially when students make more unconventional choices. Three graduates from Jewish day schools who took unusual paths — Aleksey Bogdanov, Abigail Gavens and Saadi Halil — are now scattered around the globe, working in very different fields.

While their paths varied, all have followed their dreams and are armed with a sense of purpose. Here are updates on where they are now and how they got there, along with advice for the class of 2014.

Name: Aleksey Bogdanov

Grew up in: San Francisco

Lives in: Los Angeles

Age: 31

Occupation: Opera singer

Alma mater: Brandeis Hillel Day School, S.F., 1997

Advice: “There’s no road worth taking that’s easy. Be ambitious and creative and use your imagination. Don’t always do things that people want you to do. If it’s a dream, you need to go for it.”


Aleksey Bogdanov in middle school

When Aleksey Bogdanov started at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco in fourth grade, shortly after arriving in the U.S., he barely spoke English. But music was always his native tongue.

The Ukraine-born professional opera singer said music has been a cornerstone of his life as long as he can remember, from classical to rock ’n’ roll. “Singing was part of my upbringing,” he said by phone from Los Angeles. “I used to sing outside my grandmother’s window in Russia.”

He gives his family credit for his natural musical abilities. “My dad sang in the army choir in Russia and my mom went to a conservatory for piano,” he said.

The 31-year-old immigrated to the Bay Area in 1992 when he was 9, attending Brandeis through eighth grade. In 11th grade he discovered Schubert, ditching his high school band and dreams of becoming a rock star.

With a lifelong passion and zest for the arts, Bogdanov has found a way to make a career as a freelance professional opera singer, despite the limited number of available jobs.

Heralded as a “baritone to watch” by the Washington Post in 2011, Bogdanov performed in operas at U.C. Santa Cruz every year as an undergrad. After receiving his degree in music in 2006, he went on to study voice at Indiana University.

Aleksey Bogdanov in “Eugene Onegin” with the Edmonton Opera

Being a professional opera singer isn’t always glamorous, said Bogdanov, who lives with his soprano girlfriend, Rebecca Nathanson. “The work pays very well when it’s there,” he said, “but it’s not full-time work.”

Even with multiple apprenticeships, including one with the San Francisco Opera, Bogdanov said he has to deal with the “inherent instability” in the industry. But he counts himself lucky in the field of opera singers. In a highly competitive market, Bogdanov says, less than 5 percent of singers selected for apprenticeships go on to make opera a career.

Bogdanov, who is multilingual in French, Italian, German, English and Russian, fulfills a half-dozen contracts a year, each about four or five weeks in duration, and fills in on last-minute roles when positions open. He also keeps busy taking voice lessons, getting coached and learning new music.Bogdanov said his parents, who still live in San Francisco, always worried about him being able to make a living in the arts but wanted him to be happy in whatever field he chose. “I remember being on stage in costume, sweat dripping down my entire body and thinking, ‘This is really hard and really challenging, and it’s exactly what I want to do.’ ”

Name: Abigail Gavens

Grew up in: Saratoga

Lives in: Venda, South Africa

Age: 24

Occupation: Peace Corps volunteer

Alma mater: Kehillah High School, Palo Alto, 2008

Advice: “Step out of your comfort zone every once in a while, try new things, and always smile.”


Abigail Gavens on graduation day

“My mom likes to blame it on one of my old Kehillah teachers,” said Abigail Gavens about her decision to join the Peace Corps in 2013. “But it was equally my mom, because she taught me that you should help people when you can.”

The 24-year-old said her interest in volunteerism was sparked in her junior year by a community service trip to New Orleans led by former Kehillah teacher Jane-Rachel Schonbrun.

Gavens later traveled to Peru on an American Jewish World Service program and the following summer went to help kids in India, where she waited for her Peace Corps application to go through. 

“It was in Peru that I decided I wanted to get to know a new culture and learn a new way of life,” she said. Gavens graduated from Boston University with a degree in severe special education in 2012.

Abigail Gavens with some of her students in South Africa

Though she admits she had imagined living in the tropics and “wasn’t thrilled” at first with her placement in a rural village in South Africa, her feelings have shifted in the 14 months she’s been there. (She’ll serve a total of 27 months.) Living in the village on the Zimbabwe border with a host family has grown on her. “I love it [here], and it’s exactly where I should be.”

There are inherent challenges to teaching English in a classroom with 50 students ranging in age from 10 to 19, Gavens said. “Teaching is hard, especially when supplies are limited to a chalk board and copy machine.”  

But despite the lack of resources, she is enjoying her experience staying in a rondavel, an African hut with a thatched roof and no running water. Her host family, whose members speak the regional language Tshivenda and cook on an open fire, have made her one of their own. “They’ve taught me so much about a different way of life and what is important.”

Gavens sees the Peace Corps experience as embedded in the concept of tikkun olam. “I’ve always had an engrained idea of needing to do mitzvot,” she says. “I didn’t come here because I was going to change the world. But if I help a few people along the way, it’s not such a bad thing.”

Name: Saadi Halil

Grew up in: Aptos

Lives in: Lisbon, Portugal

Age: 24

Occupation: Musician/documentarian

Alma mater: Kehillah Jewish High School, Palo Alto, 2008

Advice: “Don’t feel too pressured to go down any certain roads because it is expected. Try to follow what you love. If you are interested in something, there will always be a way to pursue it.”


Saadi Halil then and now

Blues and folk music have been in Saadi Halil’s blood since he was young, so filming a documentary and putting out an album by age 24 were a natural progression for him.

“Music is a big part of what I’m doing right now,” he said from a train in Europe, where he is traveling and collecting material for two documentaries.

After graduating from George Washington University with a degree in international affairs in 2012, Halil worked at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and released “Before I Head Out Again,” his eclectic album that combines country, world and folk music.

Then, in 2013, he was awarded a yearlong Dorothy M. and Maurice C. Shapiro Traveling Fellowship that took him to Spain and Portugal.

In the past year he has been trekking around the two countries and shooting footage of rural and urban areas for two documentaries on music — one on Spanish flamenco and the other on Portuguese fado. “It’s very passionate and heartfelt music,” he said. “It’s soulful and an authentic expression of the general human experience.”

Saadi Halil then and now

The project stems from his concern about a lack of authenticity in “overcommercialized music” and his desire to understand how fado and flamenco have survived over the centuries. Halil has been gathering firsthand stories from artists, composers and historians to get a feel for the culture and the music.

“I studied in Argentina, traveled in Panama and lived for a year in Brazil,” said Halil, who credits Kehillah for getting him started on Spanish and Portuguese, his second and third languages.

Music is his first love. Self-taught in guitar, he said he grew up listening to records and books he borrowed from the library. Then, at 12, his piano teacher turned him on to the blues. “That resonated with me, and I was really interested in traditional music,” he said. “Since I love languages and music, I wanted to play all the different styles I could.” 

Halil grew up in Aptos in “a very diverse” family, he said — an Egyptian father, Russian Jewish mother and Japanese stepfather. “I got a piece of everything.”

He always felt an affinity for Judaism. “I always felt strongly about the cultural aspect of Judaism,” he said. “My grandparents were early Reconstructionists, and that has had a pretty large influence on how I grew up.

“I was brought up surrounded by the Jewish value of questioning,” he said, “not just for the sake of it, but finding meaning and value in it.”