Every year when I send out that first e-mail asking educators and leaders from around the city to nominate high school seniors for this "Outstanding Seniors" article, the angst begins. I get the names of dozens of nominees, and through a one-paragraph description I'm supposed to figure out who belongs in this feature.
It's an impossible task, and inevitably I resign myself to the ultimate randomness of this selection -- for every teen I pick, 10 others could have filled that spot.
And yet, taken as a whole, this group of teens offers what feels like a pretty accurate cross-section of the leaders of the Class of 2007, and illuminates the concerns that drive them and their cohorts.
What stood out among this group of teens is an eagerness to take responsibility not only for their own futures, but for society.
One student has worked to pass state legislation to improve the lives of teens, and another has published nationally recognized research on AIDS. They have fed the homeless, mentored children, buddied with the disabled, and raised $20,000 for Holocaust survivors. They have founded baseball teams, language clubs, social action groups and astronomy programs. They have spread their love of Judaism to younger children and to peers, and thought deeply about how to improve the world.
So is it random? Maybe. But if this is what a random sampling of the Class of 2007 yields, I'm OK with that.
-- Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor
It's All About Student Empowerment
From: North Hollywood High School Highly Gifted Magnet and
Wilshire Boulevard Temple Religious School
To: Yale University
While other seniors waited for news of college acceptances, Tess Lerner-Byars was waiting for word from the California Legislature.
As president of the California Association of Student Councils (CASC), Lerner-Byars helped craft a bill, now making its way through the appropriations committee, that would stop the practice of the state docking a school's per-pupil, per-day funding if a student took off for civic activity or social action projects.
It's an issue that hits close to home for Lerner-Byars, a senior in the Highly Gifted Magnet at North Hollywood High School, who has accumulated a considerable number of absences this year as she traveled to Sacramento or to Oakland, where CASC is headquartered, to plan conferences and leadership training programs for elementary, middle and high school students.
Lerner-Byars, who also served on her school's student government, hopes to bring student empowerment closer to home. As an intern in the mayor's Department of Youth, Children and Their Families this summer, she is planning to hold a conference that will kick off a student policy committee for Los Angeles Unified School District, with a mission similar to CASC's.
She plans to continue her policy work at Yale next year by joining the Roosevelt Institute, which gives college students a voice in creating national and international policy.
Lerner-Byars is well positioned for advocacy: she placed fourth in the state's Speech and Debate competition, and was in the top 50 nationally, in the original speech category. She also finished in the top 10 in Duke University's international law competition.
Lerner-Byars is fluent in Spanish and French, and started her school's language club. She also played two years of varsity soccer and wrote for the school paper.
With all this, Lerner-Byars still found time to study in religious school at Wilshire Boulevard Temple through her senior year. She is a madricha, a counselor, to eighth graders at the Temple.
"I stayed on primarily because of the sense of community I feel there," she said.
Getting Beyond Small Talk
From: YULA Boys School
To: Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University
If you are one of the several-hundred people Ori Kanefsky makes a point of meeting at a youth group convention, your conversation with him may quickly go from "Hey, what's up?" to "What are your goals in life?" or "What would you do if you found out today you weren't Jewish?"
Intense and enthusiastic, Kanefsky likes to get beyond small talk and find out what is really going on with people. In one instance, he was even able to talk a peer out of considering suicide.
"I think the idea of religion is that its commandments and rules and opportunities can transform us into an incredibly ethical and moral person who seeks to go out and always do the right thing and make the world as good a place as we can," said Kanefsky, a YULA senior and the vice president of education for the Southwest Region of the Orthodox Union's National Conference of Synagogue Youth.
Kanefsky is a founder and the president of the Jewish Teen Action Group (J-Tag). The group made and handed out thousands of peanut-butter-and-jelly sack lunches to the homeless in Santa Monica and downtown, and another time made a barbecue for the needy on Venice Beach.
He is a counselor and tutor to younger kids, and a liaison to the Etta Israel Center, rustling volunteers to staff Shabbatons and events for disabled children and adults.
An honors student who loves math, he is chairman of the YULA's spirit committee, captain of the cross-country team and plays keyboard in a band. He was one of five teens nationwide to be named a Senator Joseph Lieberman Scholar, an Orthodox Union program that educates teens about the leadership and organizational structure of the American Jewish community.
Kanefsky will study at the Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel next year, and then attend Yeshiva University in New York, where he won a full merit scholarship in the school's honors program. While both are schools his father, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B'nai David-Judea Congregation, attended, he doesn't think he'll become a pulpit rabbi. He is toying with the idea of going into engineering or business, or possibly education or psychology -- pursuits he already seems to have mastered with his peers.
Ms. Morgenstern Goes to Washington
From: Van Nuys High School Medical Magnet
and Temple Judea Religious School
To: George Washington University
What Madeleine Morgenstern likes best about the prospect of attending George Washington University is that it is three blocks from the White House, which she one day hopes to occupy.
"I aim high," says Morgenstern, who is graduating from the Van Nuys High School Medical Magnet.
Meanwhile, Morgenstern is secretary of the school's student government and has helped get the students more involved in creating and changing policies that affect them.
When it came time to do a medical-related senior project, a magnet requirement, Morgenstern went undercover as a pregnant teenager to research how medical, social and religious organizations counsel teens, and whether political bias entered the equation.
For several years she has volunteered at the USC Medical Center's Women's and Children's Hospital, visiting patients and playing with the kids. She was in Girl Scouts through 10th grade, reaching the rank of senior scout.
She describes herself as being hyper-aware of politics and current events, even pre-empting headlines on illegal immigration when she brought the issue up in school, which is 70 percent Latino, well before last year's rallies.
Morgenstern is dedicated to understanding and talking about the issues, and not only in the political realm. She has been a religious school teaching assistant and tutor at Temple Judea in Tarzana since the eighth grade.
"There are certain prayers that I love, and when I'm tutoring a kid and she's able to read through the prayer and say it, I think, 'Yeah, this is what I'm doing here,'" she said.
That has also translated over to the Jewish Student Union, a lunchtime Jewish club, of which she is president. The club offers free lunch and discussion of a Judaic topic. While an adviser teaches many of them, sometimes Morgenstern steps in herself to lead the group.
She plans to keep teaching in college, and has already contacted a synagogue in Washington -- one that will keep her nice and close to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Serving Community Service
From: Shalhevet High School
To: Nishmat and Barnard College
In ninth grade, Mitzi Steiner gathered a handful of friends to spend Thanksgiving Day feeding the homeless at the Santa Monica Civic Center. This year on Thanksgiving she had a group of about 30 teens, and most of them were there thanks to her efforts to organize Shalhevet's community service programming.
In her sophomore year, Steiner created the Community Service Committee, designed to match up students and organizations for volunteer work. She exposed students to new organizations and energized the school's community service program.
"I think an important aspect of community service is not giving just for the sake of giving, but giving in a way that is meaningful to you," Steiner said. "I want community service to be something that touches the students, not something they do for [required] hours or because they have to."
Steiner, a member of the Westwood Kehilla, volunteers with KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles' reading tutorial program; Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles; and Etta Israel Center, where she pairs up with disabled young adults for weekend retreats and special events.
She embarked on her work with KOREH L.A. to fulfill a community service requirement following her summer as a Bronfman Youth Fellow, a highly competitive Israel trip where 26 high schoolers from across North America are selected to tour the country, meet with leaders and determine their own role as future leaders.
Steiner spent previous summers at Drisha Institute in New York, where she studied Talmud and Jewish texts, a passion she took back to Shalhevet as a founding member of the school's rigorous Beit Midrash program. She is the school's valedictorian this year, and also earned numerous other awards, including the Bureau of Jewish Education's Ahavat Torah award for Jewish learning.
As co-captain with her twin brother, Benjamin, of the school's Model U.N. team, she took home a best delegate award, and she has acted in, directed and written many of the school's theater productions.
After a year studying at Nishmat in Jerusalem, she will enter Barnard College in New York.
Reaching for the Stars
From: North Hollywood High School Highly Gifted Magnet and
Los Angeles Hebrew High School
To: University of Michigan
The first time Andrew David was wowed by a sky full of stars was on a night hike at Camp Ramah in Ojai when he was in sixth or seventh grade. When he goes back to camp this summer as a counselor, he's bringing his telescope to initiate a new astronomy program. Aside from showing the kids what's up there, he hopes to be able to answer their questions about science and religion.
Questions about the sky were more fact-based when he competed as the astronomy expert with his school's science bowl team, which won the regional competition this year, as it has nine out of the last 10 years. He plans to major in mechanical or aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.
One of his first stops when he gets to school will be the campus Hillel, which he sees as an extension of his activities with his youth group, United Synagogue Youth (USY). David is the vice president of religion and education of the USY chapter at Adat Ari El, where he attended Hebrew school through his bar mitzvah. After that he went on to Los Angeles Hebrew High School, which he attended through 12th grade.
At Adat Ari El, David also played a role in the USY production of "My Fair Lady," directed by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum.
He plays guitar and also plays trumpet with his school's jazz band, which has won numerous competitions and opened the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. He was on the gold-medal winning Los Angeles baseball team in the 2004 Maccabi USA Games and has played varsity baseball at North Hollywood High for four years.
And, when his day is done, David likes to sit down with some complicated origami. In fact, his favorite origami trick combines his love for art, Judaism, math and astronomy: He can make a Jewish star out of a dollar bill.
All for Israel
Rita Carla Bron
From: YULA Girls High School
To: Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim and Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women
When Rita Carla Bron entered YULA high school after skipping eighth grade, she was the youngest in her class. She didn't know any other girls, and she might have been one of the only students in the Orthodox girls high school to have entered from a Conservative elementary school.
Bron says it took her about a year to acclimate, but this month she graduates as the school's valedictorian, and not only has she found her circle of friends, but she is considered a role model among her peers.
Bron was a delegate to the Model U.N., she was co-editor of the school's newspaper, she acted in several of YULA's theater productions, and she founded the school's debate club.
Debating attracted her because it requires analytical thinking, something Bron enjoys, especially in the context of math and science. She will keep that as a focus at Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women, where she will be part of the school's prestigious honors program and will take classes for an engineering major at Columbia University. She will spend her first year of college studying Jewish texts at a Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim in Israel.
Israel advocacy is a passion of Bron's, and during her junior year she helped bring programming from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to YULA. She is the second high school senior in Los Angeles out of five nationwide to be named a Senator Joseph Lieberman Scholar.
Bron spends much of her time outside of school helping the disabled, both through the Etta Israel Center and through the Orthodox Union's Yachad program, where she volunteers every week. Also on her weekly schedule are the hours she spends as a volunteer mother's helper for a local family.
"These past four years have been truly amazing," says Bron, reflecting on her difficult transition into YULA. "I'm so happy and thankful to my school, my friends, my family and to God."
Bringing Judaism to the Masses
From: Harvard Westlake
To: Williams College
Emanuel Yekutiel's enthusiasm hits you like a train going full speed. Articulate and outgoing, Yekutiel is an Orthodox Jew who is by no means orthodox in his approach to life.
He started high school at the Orthodox YULA Boys High School, but transferred to the secular Harvard-Westlake in 10th grade because he wanted to meet and understand people with a different perspective.
What Yekutiel couldn't foresee was the growth he would inspire in others. His Jewish outreach programs, born out of a desire to share the faith that he is so passionate about, have sparked a rebirth of Jewish activity at Harvard-Westlake.
The winner of the Most Outstanding Sophomore award started a prayer club, built a sukkah on campus, passed out baskets of fruit and nuts on Tu B'Shevat, dressed up on Purim and answered countless questions about Judaism from curious students of all religions.
Yekutiel is most proud of the fact that he influenced two other observant Jewish students to wear their yarmulkes with pride. Before his arrival, they were embarrassed to openly identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.
"I wanted to show people that there is more to Jews than just the Middle East crisis," he said. "There are so many fun things about Judaism!"
Yekutiel likens Judaism to a buffet where you should choose only the items that you are hungry for. He thinks the wrong way to approach it is to try and sample everything and end up overeating and feeling overwhelmed.
Although missing the formal training and rigorous religious instruction of YULA, Yekutiel said he is more spiritual and observant than ever.
"You don't need to follow a formula in life. No one can make you spiritual. That comes from the inside," he said.
Yekutiel, a self-proclaimed nerd with good grades, plans to continue his activism at Williams College, where he will be "dipping his finger in everything," including art history.
-- Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer
A Personal Project
From: Milken Community High School
Jaye Kasper was only 4 years old when she lost her sister to AIDS, but the experience has left an indelible mark on her life. Kasper, now an only child, has been nationally recognized for her three-year science research project on AIDS.
Working with Debra Murphy from the Health Risk Reductions Projects at UCLA, Kasper conducted a study and wrote a research paper titled, "The Religiosity, Parenting Self-Efficacy, Depression and Anxiety of HIV Positive Mothers and Their Children." She is now working on getting her paper published in a medical journal and hopes to continue researching AIDS.
Kasper also started an AIDS awareness club at her school and organized a benefit concert at the Knitting Factory that raised $3,000 for ICARE, an AIDS research and education program started by her father after her sister's death.
In addition to being an ambitious activist, Kasper is also an outstanding scholar with a 4.2 GPA in a rigorous curriculum (she has taken nine AP classes).
While many students in their final year of high school are struck with "senioritis" and cutting back on work and school involvement, Kasper has become a pioneer in her last semester by working on a culminating project in Milken's pilot program, "Graduation by Exhibition."
The list of activities goes on: Kasper was on the varsity dance team, served as secretary of the class council for four years and organized the senior bonfire, in addition to numerous other events.
Luckily, the spirited over-achiever is not going to be far from her proud parents. She is headed to USC's prestigious Marshall School of Business and plans to become a lawyer.
There's No Crying for Baseball
From: New Community Jewish High School
To: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Baseball has always figured prominently in Alex Friedman's life, whether he's playing it or watching it. But when he transferred from Calabasas High School to New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in 10th grade, Friedman found himself at a school without a baseball team.
So he told NCJHS Athletic Director Sina Monjazeb, "We need a baseball team, or I'm not coming." During his first semester, Friedman and a few friends gathered a group of interested students and contacted baseball coach Ethan Bowlin, who helped supply the team with equipment and training.
In less than a year, with the support of the administration, NCJHS had its first baseball team, which has become central to the school's athletic program.
Friedman, a first baseman with pitching experience, was named team captain at the start of the first season, requiring him to meet with the coach after each practice, in addition to serving as a team role model.
The empowering experience of creating a team from scratch changed Friedman's approach to school. While at Calabasas High he was mostly unmotivated and had mediocre grades, he says he "switched on, academically" at NCJHS. He particularly likes math and the abstract thinking of Jewish philosophy, such as discussing the works of Spinoza and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Now Friedman sits at the front of the class and has raised his GPA to 3.9. On and off the field, hard work has become a central part of his life.
Friedman will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, yet another school that lacks a baseball team. There, he is looking forward to getting involved in a Jewish fraternity, studying religious philosophy and math, and of course ... starting a collegiate baseball team.
-- Jay Firestone, Contributing Writer
Help for Survivors
From: Wildwood Secondary School
To: University of Wisconsin-Madison
After visiting concentration camps and bygone shtetls with Camp Ramah's Poland Seminar in the summer after her 10th grade year, Laura Taubman felt that she needed to do something.
As someone who strived to be "a lifelong learner and teacher," she began an internship at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in her senior year and became a student docent.
When the time came to prepare for her 12th grade project, a requirement for all seniors at Wildwood Secondary School, she knew this was her opportunity to make a difference -- not only to enhance her knowledge of World War II tragedies, but to encourage others to learn as well.
First, she drew from her experiences at the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust and taught two courses on the ghettos and concentration camps to her classmates.
The school also required that the project include a personal challenge or community involvement aspect. Extremely disturbed by the knowledge that 30,000 U.S. Holocaust survivors live below the poverty level, Taubman set out to raise funds for -- and awareness of -- that population.
Taubman began her efforts in December by contacting Jon Kean, director of the film "Swimming in Auschwitz." He agreed to donate the film for a screening. From there, the high school senior secured a venue at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Once the location was determined, she joined forces with Jewish Healthcare Foundation Bikur Cholim and its Holocaust Assistance Survival Program.
The May 7 screening saw more than 250 in the audience and raised $20,000 for the Bikur Cholim Holocaust Survivors Assistance Program.
"It's our responsibility to tell the stories our grandparents won't be able to," Taubman said.
Taubman is also the editor of her school yearbook, captain of the soccer team, a counselor at Camp Ramah in Ojai, and holds an after-school job. Next year, she plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is excited to further her involvement in Holocaust programming.
From: Milken Community High School
To: USC Marshall School of Business
Like many teens, Jordan Asheghian spent hours on the phone talking about relationships. But for Asheghian, those conversations happened with people he didn't know. Since ninth grade, Asheghian has been volunteering for Teenline, taking anonymous phone calls from distressed teens who need someone to talk to about anything from relationships or depression to abuse or addiction. Asheghian underwent 60 hours of training, in addition to many more hours of observing and role-playing, before he was able to take his first phone call.
"It can get tough but it was also very rewarding," said the Milken Community High School senior. "I feel like I helped a lot of people, and I feel like I learned a lot about myself."
Asheghian took those listening skills back to Milken's Vatikim (Veterans) program, where he advised about 15 ninth-graders to help smooth their transition to high school.
For the past two years he has co-led Milken's weekly Sephardic Minyan, leading prayers, discussions about Persian and Sephardic culture, or sharing Sephardic food. The experience was especially rewarding since about half the minyan was Persian or Sephardic and the rest were Ashkenazi.
A solid student who took AP classes and excelled in math, Asheghian's primary passion is soccer. A highlight of his soccer career came in 2005, when he was captain of the USA team for the international youth Maccabiah Games in Israel, which occur every four years. USA came in fourth, and was the only team to tie Israel, which won the gold medal.
He was captain this year and last of Milken's varsity team and received an award for excellence from the league's division. He's been playing since he was 11 and for the past two years has been in the Premiere Division of Club Soccer -- one of the highest amateur levels around.
He plans to keep playing Club Soccer while he studies at the Marshall School of Business at USC next year, and hopes to continue his affiliation with the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills.