Graduating from: Bais Yaakov
Heading to: Midreshet Darkeynu, Jerusalem
-- Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor
Leah Hill was in a store with her daughter, Talia (Tali), and was having a hard time communicating with a clerk.
"Oh, I give up," Leah said.
"Mommy," Hill immediately responded, "never say you give up. You just have to keep trying harder."
Those words -- one of many spontaneous pep talks Hill gives to everyone around her -- are particularly profound coming from Hill. Born with her twin sister, Ariella, after 27 weeks of gestation, Hill has mild cerebral palsy and is hearing impaired.
But despite difficulty walking, hearing and speaking, Hill is graduating Bais Yaakov Los Angeles this month alongside her twin, having kept pace to complete high school.
In fact, Hill has flourished in high school, earning solid grades in all her classes -- about nine per semester, covering everything from Jewish texts and philosophy to economics and government. Private aides -- including her older sister Eliana -- take notes for her and help her with writing, but all the studying, thinking and expressing are up to her.
Eliana Hill said her sister often stays after class to ask more questions and spends recess studying, organizing her notes or even reading the weekly Torah portion, even though that isn't required for any class. She drops in regularly on the principal, just to say 'hi' or to stump him with a well thought-out question.
She's often up earlier than anyone else in her house and stays up late at night, after an evening schedule that usually includes visiting her grandparents, visits from friends, homework, tutoring, speech therapy, occupational therapy or yoga for physical therapy.
But for those around her, it isn't Hill's tenacity that stands out most. What more people see is her giant smile, her good nature and her great sense of humor.
Walking down the halls at Bais Yaakov, an Orthodox girls school near Hancock Park, Hill seems to know everyone in every grade -- asking this girl if she ever found her Chumash notes, asking that girl how her math test went, oohing over the friend who got her braces off.
One year, her class voted to give her the annual "Ashes Chayil" award, recognizing the girl who most exemplifies strong moral values, a positive nature and a desire to help others.
When Hill's aides were unable to make it on the senior class trip with her, two classmates, unwilling to go without their friend, stepped in and said they would help Hill.
And Hill has opened doors for other girls. After completing Yeshiva Aahron Yaakov Ohr Eliyahu through eighth grade, with the help of aides and tutoring, she became the first student with disabilities to be truly integrated through an inclusion program at Bais Yaakov. Today, six other students with physical and developmental disabilities are integrated into the regular curriculum at Bais Yaakov, with modifications when necessary.
"It's an inspiration to watch her," said Rabbi Yoel Bursztyn, principal of Bais Yaakov. "After a little while with her, you forget about her disabilities."
Next year Hill and her family will once again be pioneers. They are making final arrangements for her to attend Midreshet Darkeynu, a Torah study and vocational skills program at Jerusalem's Midreshet Lindenbaum, designed for girls with special needs such as severe learning disabilities or mild developmental disorders. Hill will be their first student with significant physical disabilities. And while a highly trained staff of counselors is available to help the girls, it will be the first time Hill will be at school without a one-on-one aide.
She's a little nervous but is looking at it with the same determination and excitement that animate everything she does (and humor -- she tells every one she is going to Asia for the year).
"I'm very excited to meet new people and make new friends, and to see my land," Hill said. "But I'm not very excited because it's frightening to leave your parents for a whole year."
But she's willing to try it, and she and her parents are confident she'll make it work. Because, as they've learned from watching Tali Hill till now, giving up is not an option. You just try harder.
Graduating from: Marlborough School
Heading to: Harvard University
-- Danielle Berrin, Contributing Writer
Perhaps the first real indicationthat Isabel Kaplan had grand dreams was revealed during Halloween in the first grade, when she dressed up as Hillary Clinton. Everything Kaplan has accomplished since then suggests there is hope for a female president yet: At 18, the Harvard-bound senior has already written two novels and helped raise funds to build a basketball court for AIDS orphans at a school in Uganda, as well as nearly $100,000 for the Marlborough Student Charitable Fund, which she created with 15 fellow students and which provides education grants for underprivileged girls in Los Angeles.
A self-declared "feminist since birth," Kaplan's concern for empowering women and girls in underserved communities has gone well beyond the confines of her classroom at the Marlborough School, the all-girls academy where she said she has seen the "wonders" of a female-centric environment and learned how necessary education is in allowing girls social and economic mobility.
Inspired by a financial literacy course she took during her sophomore year, Kaplan helped inaugurate the Marlborough Student Charitable Fund. The group has created a highly successful annual event -- a fashion show and a gala auction Kaplan co-chaired -- and partnered with the Women's Foundation of California to distribute grants to help local girls finish high school and attend college.
But reaching across town was not enough for Kaplan.
After winning the World Affairs Challenge (a national competition in international relations) with a project on AIDS orphans, she was struck by the discovery that girls her age in Africa became mothers before they could read. Through a teacher's contact in Uganda, she hooked up with a school for AIDS orphans and organized a pen-pal correspondence with students there. In this endeavor, she established "Girls4Girls," through which she plans to build a health care clinic in rural Tanzania.
Kaplan also boasts a 4.0 GPA, serves as student council vice president and will publish her first novel, a coming-of-age story, through HarperCollins this summer.
Kaplan credits her family's unconditional support for her astounding success. Always determined, Kaplan said her family -- her mother is feminist lawyer Susan Estrich, her father is Marty Kaplan, associate dean of USC's Annenberg School of Communications -- never challenged or questioned her lofty ambitions. Being the next female president may not be so far off -- Kaplan plans to study government when she matriculates in the fall.
Graduating from: YULA Boys School
Heading to: Yeshivat Har Etzion and then UCLA
There's an unspoken rule among Orthodox teens in Los Angeles that you can either be involved in the outreach-oriented NCSY youth movement, or the religious Zionist B'nei Akiva. But you don't do both, and you certainly aren't a leader in both.
Ian Lurie wasn't interested in such arbitrary separations. With a reputation for being a serious mensch, no one doubted his earnest desire to help people out and to bring together people who might not otherwise mix. This year, Lurie was regional co-president of NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union's teen arm), and he is head of high school activities for B'nei Akiva and a counselor in the group's Shabbat afternoon program for kids.
While he sometimes had to navigate scheduling conflicts, that was worth it for him, because he wasn't willing to give up either of the values the groups represented.
NCSY brings together kids from Orthodox schools, community schools, secular private schools and public schools, all with the goal of deepening Jewish commitment. That mission has allowed Lurie to act on his desire to see people of different backgrounds come together. Through B'nei Akiva, he's been able to teach others about Israel, a focal point in his Jewish identity.
The valedictorian at YULA boys high school, Lurie also opted for the "all of the above" option when choosing an outlet for his volunteer instinct. He coordinated volunteers from YULA for both Chai Lifeline, an organization that helps families with chronically ill children, and for Yachad, an Orthodox Union organization that hosts a weekly activity for developmentally disabled adults. He's spent two summers with Yachad, traveling to Israel and the East Coast as a one-on-one counselor for a participant with disabilities. He plays a similar role in Etta Israel, a Los Angeles organization, where he attends monthly activities and several Shabbatons a year, paired up with a young adult with developmental disabilities.
Lurie manages all this -- and intramural basketball and biking -- along with a grueling school schedule. He is in YULA's advanced Gemara track, which lengthens his day by more than three hours -- from the usual 7:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., to an exhausting 8:30 p.m. -- twice a week and Sunday mornings, as well.
Next year he's headed for Yeshivat Har Etzion outside of Jerusalem, and after that he'll start UCLA. It was a tough decision to go to UCLA over an East Coast school with a more vibrant Orthodox presence, but he sees it as another opportunity.
"I plan to get involved and be active in Hillel," he said. "I'll be there for whatever they need me for."
Graduating from: Milken Community High School
Heading to: MIT
Richard Dahan recently came up with a new hobby. He's collecting synonyms to answer the question, "How are you?": superb, excellent, splendid, magnificent, fantastic, spectacular.
And it's not just because Dahan speaks in superlatives -- it's because he really is that happy, and that grateful, for everything in his life.
The salutatorian of Milken Community High School's graduating class, Dahan is a science whiz, a leader among his peers and social-action oriented. And he shares it all with three siblings of the same age -- he's one of a set of quadruplets, whom he calls his best friends. All of them will attend MIT next year.
In most of his endeavors, Dahan has had one or more of his siblings at his side. A member of Milken's Mitchell Science Academy, Dahan led Milken's team in the FIRST Robotics competition for high schoolers. While the team's Killer Rabbit robot didn't win, they did get the spirit award for their 10-foot-high castle, matching red coveralls and swords.
He also participated in a safe-cracking competition in Israel, where teams build locking mechanisms using physics principles -- such as magnets and ball bearings that had to be arranged in a specific order to shoot a rifle fast enough to open a lock.
Dahan gets quite a kick -- intellectual and humorous -- out of these competitions, which is why he gathered friends to reconstitute the school's science bowl team after it took a year off.
As president of the school's National Honor Society, he tutored peers for about 130 hours a year, and also started a program where seniors mentor juniors on what to expect from the college application process. Through Milken's Yozma leadership initiative, he ran a blood drive and a fluorescent light bulb sales drive. With the profits, they donated fluorescent bulbs to the SOVA food pantry to help the needy save on electric bills.
He's been on the cross-country team for four years and plans to keep running alongside the Charles River -- or maybe on it during winter, he jokes -- at MIT.
He's looking forward to the intellectualism, quirkiness and enthusiasm he encountered on a visit to MIT. His siblings all have different areas of interest, so he's pretty sure they'll be able to stay close but independent.
But first, he and his siblings have some rare plans for this summer: The Dahans are going to relax.
Graduating from: New Community Jewish High School
Heading to: UC Riverside
It was easy to spot Alex Fard at his graduation from New Community Jewish High School last week -- he was the guy with swirls of glitter and large yellow stars stuck to his cap, pumping his fist and high-fiving his classmates as he took his seat on the stage.
While it would have been easy to pinpoint him as the head of the class spirit squad, it soon was apparent that his exuberance went a lot deeper. Fard's personal tragedy in ninth grade made school a focal point of stability for him, and turned him into a galvanizing force for his class.
Two months into his start at New Jew, Fard's father died suddenly, after a surgery went bad. The youngest of four children, Fard sat shiva with his family for three days then hurried back to the place that in just a few months had become his second home.
Friends rallied around him, learning in the process what it meant to support a friend. The school offered him regular counseling, and teachers gave him their home and cell phone numbers, checking in on him regularly.
He also became close with other kids who had lost parents at a support group at Our House. Perhaps it was that experience that allowed him to be there for two other classmates who lost their fathers in 11th grade.
"It was my chance to help them through the grieving process, because I had been there, and I am standing where they are going to be," he said. In his years in high school, he also lost three grandparents and an uncle.
But Fard didn't let his tragedy define his years in high school. He kept up his grades and joined the basketball, volleyball and cross-country team. He also managed the lacrosse team for a year and played guitar in a school band he helped form.
Fard will be attending UC Riverside next year, where he hopes to major in accounting. He was among four seniors chosen to speak at graduation.
"I often turned to you when I would have turned to my father," he told the faculty. "You have raised us, you have nurtured us and nourished us, and we have blossomed because of you."
Graduating from: YULA Girls High School
Heading to: Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim and then NYU
A few weeks ago, on her regular Sunday morning rounds as a volunteer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's surgical rehab center, Alyson Goldenberg came across a patient who was just about her age.
It was a change from the elderly, or at least adult, patients she usually talks to and helps out, and it was a moving experience for both Goldenberg and the patient to spend time together.
"I love working with the patients and putting a smile on their faces," the YULA Girls High School senior sid. Goldenberg will spend next year in seminary in Jerusalem, and then will enter New York University's nursing school, where she will likely pursue a master's degree.
Goldenberg has always been interested in medicine and directly helping patients. Aside from her Sunday morning volunteer hours, she is now in the middle of an internship in the surgery center and will spend her summer working in the stroke and pediatrics departments at the hospital.
The Etta Israel Center and the Orthodox Union's Yachad, both programs for developmentally disabled kids and adults, have also benefited from Goldenberg's desire to help others. She's spent two summers at Etta Israel's camp, and she volunteers at a weekly Yachad activity and occasional Etta Israel Shabbatons, working one-on-one with the participants. She has formed an especially close relationship with the women who live in Etta Israel's group home in Valley Village.
As YULA's student council vice president this year, she helped organize activities like Nerd Day, Shabbatons and the Purom, an all-girls costume ball. Though her schedule is packed, Thursday nights belong to Tomchei Shabbos, where she assembles boxes of groceries to be delivered to needy families, and she carves out time to study with and mentor a sixth-grader at a local Jewish day school.
Goldenberg is looking forward to spending next year in Jerusalem, not only because Israel and Israel advocacy are a central passion for her, but because she will be studying Torah. While she is committed to becoming a nurse -- a medically oriented profession where she can also have a family -- another side of her would love to teach Torah.
Graduating from: El Camino Real High School
Heading to: Cal State Northridge
Moving from Argentina to Los Angeles at the age of 12 was rough on Damian Svidler. He could speak English pretty well, but still didn't have the confidence to make friends or find his niche. But during his junior year at El Camino Real High School, he hit on something that changed all that.
Svidler realized he loved helping people. After taking a class on the college experience, he dropped in at the guidance counselor's office to see if she needed a TA. He and another girl became the school's first peer guidance counselors, spending time counseling juniors and seniors about taking SATs, getting transcripts in order and visiting colleges. Soon people were stopping him in the hall with questions or calling him in the middle of the night while they filled out applications. He even mustered the courage to speak in front of hundreds of parents.
"Before I was kind of shy. I could never see myself as a leader," Svidler said. "That position showed me how much I love helping people, answering their questions and seeing them satisfied."
Thanks to his success, this year the school has 14 peer counselors.
Svidler has transferred his newfound leadership skills to other areas, as well. He is on the school's student council, where he is responsible for student achievement. He threw a successful brunch to reward students with high GPAs, and he runs encouragement programs for those who need more help. He also guides other students who are organizing events and programs.
Svidler, a member of the swim team, is active in the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization and in his school's Jewish Awareness Club, and he traveled with the club on a National Conference of Synagogue Youth trip to New York, where he stayed with a religious family, exposing him to a new facet of Judaism.
His desire to broaden his horizons also brought him to the Anti-Defamation League's Dream Dialogue, a program where teens of different ethnicities get together to explore issues of tolerance. That group has helped him become less judgmental, he said, and to understand that beneath a person's surface are many layers of complexity worth getting to know.
Svidler will enter Cal State Northridge in the fall, where he can live on campus but still stay close to a tight-knit extended family. He hasn't picked a major yet, but he is leaning toward some sort of counseling, where he can continue doing the thing that has most helped him -- helping others.
Anna Alysse Fuchs
Graduating from: Oakwood School
Heading to: Habonim program in Israel
-- Ayala Or-el, Contributing Writer
Ask anyone involved with the local arm of Habonim Dror, the progressive Zionist youth movement, where they would be if it weren't for Anna Alysse Fuchs, and they would probably tell you they might well be sitting at home watching TV. Fuchs stepped in as rosh ken, heading up the region, when she realized the group needed a leader.
Fuchs first became involved with Habonim Dror six years ago. Very quickly she realized that her involvement wouldn't be just another after-school activity, but a serious commitment.
"It's my life," she said. "I just love the movement and everything that it represents. I learned a lot through our activities -- about Israel, Judaism and life. In our meetings we discuss social justice issues, the situation in the Middle East, the war in Iraq and other political issues."
Fuchs organizes monthly sessions for discussions, activities like bowling, ice skating and just hanging out together.
"My family was always very supportive of my involvement with Habonim Dror. They gave me values and told me how important it is to get involved and give something back to the community," said the Oakwood School senior.
Fuchs spent one summer at Habonim's camp in Israel, and last summer she was at Camp Gilboa near Redlands training to be a counselor, a job she will take on this year. After that she is going to Israel for a Habonim program.
"I'm going to Israel for nine months, and I'm very excited about it. We'll spend half the time on a kibbutz and half of the time in a local community, where we'll get to do a service project in an Arab-Israeli school".
In addition to her activities at Habonim Dror, Fuchs still finds time to be an assistant Sunday school teacher and to teach Israeli dancing at Temple Israel of Hollywood. At Oakwood, she teaches dance to elementary school students and maintains a 3.8 grade point average. She hasn't yet decided which college she will attend after her year in Israel.
Graduating from: Shalhevet School
Heading to: Young Judea's Shalem Program in Israel and then Boston University
-- Amy Klein, Religion Editor
Even though it was a little scary and new, Gaby Grossman was excited to go to high school. She was excited for the change, to be with more people.
"I came to Shalhevet, and I decided I wasn't going to be one of those kids to let high school pass them by," said the senior at the Modern Orthodox high school. "I wanted to do something in high school that I would remember for the rest of my life."
Grossman's extracurricular activities sound like a lot to remember: She immediately started writing for the school newspaper, participated in the student body agenda committee, became co-captain of the model congress team (like a debate team), volunteered as a tutor with Koreh L.A. and produced, wrote and directed one-act plays at the school's one-act festival.
Along the way, she's debated everything from stem-cell research to limiting filibusters, won an award from Princeton, written articles on hookah bars and the youngest superdelegate in the country, directed a play called "Much Ado About High School" -- and, most importantly, learned a lot.
"It's truly taught me a lot. It's made me smarter and more intellectual," she said. "I think I have gotten so much out of high school."
Grossman's favorite subjects are writing and politics, and she would like to double major in public relations and political science at Boston University in September 2009. But first, Grossman will study in Israel on Young Judea's Shalem program for a year.
"My spiritual growth matters to me a lot -- never in my life will I have a chance to focus for a year on it," she explained. "I think it will be a life-changing experience -- I have a gut feeling about it," she said. "College will wait."
Graduating from: North Hollywood High School and Los Angeles Hebrew High School
Heading to: Stanford University
-- Jay Firestone, Contributing Writer
Isaac Bleaman, who will graduate this spring from North Hollywood High School, has mastered the art of time management.
The 18-year-old is not only a violinist for the Junior Philharmonic Orchestra of California, he's also concertmaster of his school orchestra, a member of a klezmer band, proficient in Yiddish, president of the Jewish Student Union (local chapter and regional board) and for one semester was editor-in-chief of the school's literary magazine. He also attends Hebrew School regularly.
Not to mention, his grades are excellent.
But this is just another week in Bleaman's life.
"Having so many activities and interests is a nice way to spice up your day, and they're nice diversions from stresses at school and family ... it's a lot, but sometimes its just a nice break," said Bleaman, who admits that his days can sometimes be exhausting.
What is his secret to staying so focused?
"Everything seems to relate thematically, through reading or writing or music. I have to do a lot, but it's all rewarding," he said.
Spending a summer on the Vilnius Yiddish Institute's Summer Program in Lithuania and a winter at KlezKamp: The Yiddish Folk Arts Program, Bleaman developed a passion for Yiddish, which he has since translated to other aspects of his life.
"I listen to klezmer and Yiddish folk music whenever I'm driving in my car," said Bleaman, adding that it consumes other areas of his life such as literary studies and his band, Project Klezmerize, which is co-sponsored by Los Angeles Hebrew High School and Councilman Dennis P. Zine. The group performs regularly at social events held by the B'nai B'rith Tarzana Lodge and at the Jewish Home for the Aging.
Next year, Bleaman will have his chance with a clean slate at Stanford University, where he'll be able to perfect his time management skills on a much larger playing field. Bleaman said he plans to incorporate Yiddish into his studies and is hoping to "get involved with Hillel, student periodicals and musical ensembles on campus."
And because Stanford doesn't have a klezmer band, Bleaman said he's eager to "get some other kids who are interested."
Graduating from: Agoura High School
Heading to: Israel Defense Forces
-- Ayala Or-el, Contributing Writer
This summer, while her friends are splashing in the pool and baking in the sun, Maor Winshtein will learn how to fire an Uzi as she goes through exhausting training as a soldier in the Israeli army. And in September, while her fellow students from Agoura Hills High are entering college and studying for their degrees, Winshtein will be standing in front of a platoon of young soldiers and will do some teaching herself.
Winshtein was born in Los Angeles to Israeli immigrants who instilled in her a love for Israel from a young age. Thanks to them, she speaks fluent Hebrew without a shred of an American accent.
While not many American parents want to see their young daughter join the army instead of going to college, Winshtein's parents are only too pleased with their daughters' decision.
"College can wait, but the army cannot," Winshtein, 18, said as she was getting ready to leave for Israel with Garin Tzabar, a program initiated by the Tzofim and the Israel Defense Forces, which drafts young Americans to the Israeli army.
"Some of my friends don't really understand why I'm doing this, but I always felt a strong connection to Israel and always knew I want to live there."
Indeed, Winshtein plans to stay in Israel after her two years of service in the army. "I would love to study therapy with animals and work with children" she said.
Her love for Israel and Judaism also brought her to United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Conservative movement's youth arm, four years ago, and she quickly became president of her USY chapter at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura. The group meets once a week and hosts different activities with a focus on Israel and Judaism.
Last summer, Winshtein traveled to Israel to be a counselor at Camp Kimama, an international overnight camp where half of the kids are Israeli and half from all over the world.
And two summers ago, Winshtein traveled to Israel to participate in the USY Poland Israel Pilgrimage trip, which visited concentration camps in Poland and then to Israel for four weeks.
That trip had a huge impact on Winshtein.
"It showed me what our people had to go through just to get to their own land and have their own country in Israel," she said. "It made me stronger. I knew then that this is where I belong, in Israel. That's where my home is."
Graduating from: Milken Community High School
Heading to: Northwestern University
-- Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer
When Marcy Blattner baked her English teacher a birthday cake, she didn't just dump the contents of a Duncan Hines box into a bowl and add water. The Milken Community High School valedictorian searched for a recipe that would reflect her and her teacher's shared enthusiasm for Victorian literature, so she presented the teacher with a lavish two-tiered cherry-filled Victorian Jubilee Cake, a dessert created for Queen Victoria in honor of her Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1897.
Having spent much of her childhood traversing the subways and public spaces of Manhattan, the refreshingly independent teen keeps herself well-occupied with a variety of activities, all of which she approaches with the same gusto and thoughtfulness she brought to baking her teacher a cake.
Blattner is part of a governing system at Milken that involves students in the school policy-making process. She is president of the Principal's Advisory, a select group of students who identify important issues affecting the school -- such as the proliferation of cell phones on campus -- and write bills that suggest solutions. The bills are then passed down to the school's Community Senate, which consists of administration, faculty and students who must vote to pass the bill. Blattner is an active member of that, as well.
The avid cook, mahjong player, captain of the varsity tennis team and manager of the girls' basketball team has an affinity for taking charge and putting things in order -- like the school's master calendar, a task that began as a community project and ballooned into a major responsibility.
Raised by a single mother since the age of 2, when her father was killed in a plane crash, Blattner is nevertheless undaunted by the prospect of attending college far from home. She very wisely explains that she is sad to be leaving her mother alone -- her older sister is away at college in Michigan -- but that they both know it's important for her to go away to college and experience life on her own. Blattner has tentative plans to attend Northwestern University in the fall, where she will be an undeclared major.
"There's too many things I want to study - history, literature, Yiddish, Jewish studies, law ... I can't choose!"
Whatever Blattner ends up choosing, you can be sure she'll tackle it with the zest of a baker whipping up black cherry cream cheese filling.