It's graduation time and The Journal caught up with several high-achieving high school graduates from around the Southland. For many of these young leaders, Judaism will continue to play a role in their lives as they enter the world of college and beyond.
Milken Community High School
College: Washington University in St. Louis
As the cultural programming executive of the student government, Rena Stern found creative ways to help her classmates appreciate their Jewish roots.
"We tried to leave a legacy at the school where Judaism would be seen as something positive and fun," said Stern, the class valedictorian. Stern's drive carried over to her efforts in co-founding the Teen Political Activist Coalition, a school organization that lobbies against issues like slavery and sweatshops.
Stern's integrity and leadership skills earned her acceptance into Wash U's prestigious Danforth Scholars program. She will probably major in political science or international relations. No matter where college takes her, Stern feels that her love of Judaism will stay intact.
"It will definitely always be a part of my life," she said.
Mesivta of Greater L.A.
College: Rabbinical College of Long Island
When the seniors at Mesivta were asked to choose the student who best represented their class, they unanimously chose Akiva Mayer. As the oldest of six children, leadership comes naturally to Mayer, who is proud to be a member of the second class to graduate from the residential yeshiva.
"Because [Mesivta is] secluded and separate from all the outside influences of the city, I was able to focus on my studies," he said.
Before starting rabbinical college in the fall, Mayer will spend the summer at a yeshiva in Israel. Rather than choosing a career path now, Mayer is looking at the larger picture.
"In general terms, I want to better the world and bring out the goodness and greatness of the Torah," he said. "That can be done no matter what specific field I decide to go into."
Beverly Hills High School
College: Columbia University
One of Eric Wirtschafter's most profound Jewish experiences occured when he spent a summer in Argentina as an exchange student.
"I had people there tell me that before I came to visit, they hated Jews," Wirtschafter remembered. "That made me realize in a lot of ways that it's important to represent who you are and know who you are."
Wirtschafter, who was in the top 2 percent of his graduating class, was very involved in Beverly's journalism program. This year he was co-editor in chief of Highlights, the school newspaper. While he clearly excelled academically, one of his most memorable high school moments was being voted Homecoming Prince during his sophomore year.
"It was pretty funny because I'm not the kind of person who wins that," he said with a laugh.
Grant High School
College: University of Wisconsin at Madison
Sivan Levaton-Carignan will never forget lobbying for Jewish issues in Washington, D.C., with her social action class from Temple Israel of Hollywood in ninth grade.
"It was probably the most amazing, influential and inspirational trip I've ever been on," said Levaton-Carignan, who wrote about the experience in her college essays.
Levaton-Carignan continued to take on leadership roles throughout her high school career. She was an active member of Grant's student council and served as student body president during her senior year. Outside school, she participated in state Sen. Richard Alarcon's (D-Van Nuys) Young Senators Program and worked as a teacher's assistant at Temple Israel.
Levaton-Carignan received a prestigious scholarship from the Association of Jewish Educators, which will fund her college education.
College: Harvard University
Before hitting Harvard, Robert Padnick will spend the next year pondering his true passion. After taking multiple Advanced Placement classes, playing drums in the school jazz band, writing a play, performing with an improv group, earning a black belt in karate and traveling the world, it is understandable that Harvard-Westlake's salutatorian needs time to reflect and decide which of his varied interests he'd like to pursue.
"I just didn't feel ready for college, yet," said the well-rounded student. "I want to take an opportunity to work for the first time and to reinvigorate myself."
Currently, he is considering an internship with the Cartoon Network, where he will explore his interest in animation.
Yeshiva University High School Los Angeles (YULA)
College: Yeshiva University
"Many people don't attempt great achievements because they're so caught up in what they'll do if they fail," said Michael Apfel, referencing his favorite speech, "The Man in the Arena," by Theodore Roosevelt. "The real dignity comes from the man who can overcome that fear of failure and can attempt to accomplish whatever he chooses."
Apfel, YULA's valedictorian and student council vice president, has certainly taken Roosevelt's advice. After studying in the Advanced Gemara Track at YULA, Apfel was accepted into the honors program at Yeshiva University where he plans to "strive for the top in both the secular and Judaic worlds."
Before college, Apfel will spend a
year at Kerem B'Yavneh, a yeshiva in Israel.
"Before I step into the real world, it will give me a year to think about what everything really means to me -- what really has substance," said Apfel, who works with mentally disabled children through volunteering with Yachad and the Etta Israel Center.
Shalhevet High School
College: Brandeis University
Shalhevet High School
College: University of Pennsylvania
At first glance, co-valedictorians, Sara Smith and Laura Birnbaum seem as different as night and day. Birnbaum is gregarious and outward, while Smith is soft-spoken. Over the years, Birnbaum blossomed as the lead in many of Shalhevet's school plays. Smith became the first female student to pray with the men in a minyan.
Before heading off to their respective colleges, both women will spend a year in Israel at a yeshiva. Birnbaum will attend Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. Smith will study at Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion.
Besides being high achievers, the two women share an air of warmth and a passion for Judaism.
"I was considering [acting] professionally, but I couldn't give up being Orthodox," said Birnbaum, who plans to study journalism or communications.
"I have a very strong connection to Judaism. I love to learn Torah and discuss issues with people," Smith said. "I question things."