One of Milken’s signature strengths is nurturing student interests and ambitions. For Benjamin Donitz ’14, that meant helping to build skills and knowledge that would ultimately take his career into the stratosphere.
Benji works at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as a systems engineer, devising early, high-level architectures for attacking complex challenges. “Scientists at JPL might say something like, ‘Let’s look at lava tubes on the moon,’ and I’m part of the team that figures out how to do it,” he says. “We design methods of approach – ways to turn theoretical goals into tangible reality.”
The foundations of Benji’s passion for science were laid in his formative years at Milken. “I took Mr. Ahad’s AP physics class twice!” he enthuses. He brought it to the next level at the University of Michigan, completing his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and a master’s degree in space engineering in five years.
Middle and high school also enabled him to develop a comfort level with more right-brained pursuits. “I’m a math-science guy, and most engineers aren’t too great at writing, but Milken really strengthened my abilities in that area,” he says. “My advisor, Mr. Martin, made me appreciate the English language in a way that helped me a lot in college and continues to serve me well today.”
The Milken experience, Benji remembers, was instrumental in forming his Jewish identity, as well. “I took Beit Midrash at Milken, which is basically honors Jewish studies, and the curriculum was excellent,” he says. “I especially appreciated the program’s electives, which allowed us to choose what we wanted to study and to see Judaism in lots of different contexts.” When it comes to Jewish learning, he continues, “Milken offers something for everyone.”
Beyond academics, Benji took advantage of Milken’s broad array of extracurricular resources. “I played water polo for four years, and Milken was a fantastic place to be a student athlete,” he says. “There was so much support, and even the off-season training was incredible.” He also fondly recalls a book club led by Head of School Dr. Sarah Shulkind, who was then the middle school principle. “It was awesome,” he says. “The books Dr. Shulkind picked are still some of the best ones I’ve ever read.”
As a sophomore at Milken, Benji participated in the school’s Tiferet program, a semester abroad in Hod Hasharon, 20 minutes outside of Tel Aviv. It was, he says, the chance of a lifetime. “Tiferet was the most interesting educational experience I ever had. One day we’d be in class, learning about a site where something happened 4,000 years ago, and the next day we’d go there. We got to learn and to do, which was amazing.”
Today, Benji is a proud Milken alumnus who treasures the connections he forged during his teenage years. “We had a really tight grade; it was super cohesive, and everyone was so friendly. There was a camaraderie that was quite special,” he says. He lives in Hollywood with a fellow Milken graduate and notes that, “The kids from high school are still my best friends.” That feeling of kinship brings him back to campus as frequently as he can to talk to current students and lend a helping hand. “The school has an unbelievable robotics lab, and I recently came by to offer some advice on current robotics design,” he says.
Reflecting on his time at Milken, Benji sees how influential it was in shaping his path forward. “Milken prepared me for Michigan and beyond,” he says. “I’m very grateful for it.”