With graduation just days away, The Jewish Journal caught up with several outstanding students from high schools around Los Angeles. Clearly, Judaism plays a role for this crop of young adults as they prepare to enter the next level of their academic and personal lives.
When Sarah Zakowski was looking for a way to spend her summer last year, she didn't anticipate how enrolling in Amigos de las Americas, a nonprofit program that sends teens to rural communities in Latin America and South America for community service, would change her outlook on life. Zakowski traveled to a small town in central Mexico, where she lived with a host family and helped build a public library. She still remembers the day she explained her kosher eating habits to her host-sister. "I had to explain to her why I followed these laws of kashrut. Living in Los Angeles, people know what it is. This is the first time I had to justify not only to her, but to myself about why I kept kosher." The experience fueled her passion for both Spanish and community outreach. Zakowski will spend this summer in Brazil, helping another small community.
Zakowski is a National Merit Finalist, a seasoned cellist and the Senior Programming co-chair for her region in United Synagogue Youth. She's a member of the Honor Society, the National Spanish Honor Society and the Cum Laude Society. She is currently considering creating her own college major incorporating human biology, community and Latin American studies.
Solomon Hess's parents don't know that he has been chosen as his school's salutatorian this year. "I'm going to hide The Jewish Journal so that it will be a surprise!" he says. While he has dreams of becoming a pediatrician someday, Hess is going to Ohr Yerushalayim, a yeshiva, to study in Israel for a year. "I'm at the point in my life where I want to learn more about myself before learning about history and the other subjects I'll learn in college," he says. Afterwards, he hopes to study at Yeshiva University.
He is on the school basketball team and has been involved in all of the school's Shabbatons. While he hopes to become a doctor, he admits, "There are other things I'm interested in, but they conflict with my being religious." Hess sees Judaism and family becoming the primary focus of his life. "My parents are religious," he says, "but I think I'm a little more hardcore about it because I get a tremendous sense of purpose. I think the more Torah you have in your life, the better family life you have."
As the daughter of two cantors, Shayna Fox's Judaism crept into many areas of her life, including her very first acting gig, a commercial for Butterball turkey. "I kept kosher so I couldn't eat their turkey, and I had to do 100 takes. After each take, I spit it into a cup!" she says with a laugh.
While Fox is her school's top varsity tennis player, her acting career is more important to her. "I love tennis so much and I feel so alive when I play, but I got to a point where it was either tennis or acting. I chose acting." Currently, Shayna provides the voice of extreme sports buff Reggie Rocket on Nickelodeon's "Rocket Power" series. She is also the voice of Savannah on the "Preschool Days" specials, which will also air on Nick.
Fox produced and directed a video called "Ten Minute Run," which won a Hollywood Radio and Television Award. Her second video short, "On Growing Older" won a prestigious International Golden Eagle Award. While her dream is to win an Oscar, Judaism will always be close to her heart. "I feel very Jewish," she says, "To me it's not a religion. It's a way of life."
Davida Brook is so modest about her outstanding academic achievements that it takes some prodding to get her to reveal her outstanding accomplishments, which include a Humanities and Literature Award, a French Literature Award and the Herbert Zipper Humanitarian Award for community service. Then there's her 4.3 GPA, her place on the school tennis team and her membership in the Cum Laude Society. Brook is president of One Voice, her school's community-service organization that supports local daycare centers for poverty-level families. She is very passionate about history and literature and jokes, "I was one of those kids who grew up in a math/science household, and I grew up to be a humanities person."
Brook is parliamentarian of the Far West region of United Synagogue Youth and is also a world traveler. She is looking forward to studying political science or international relations at Columbia next year. She will take her Judaism and her dedication to Israel with her as she goes off to college. "My big shtick is advocating Israel," she says. "My family has taken me there many times. [Within the Jewish community,] I feel like my generation's thing is supporting Israel, because it's in such a time of need."
Bailey Reikes Fox's interest in photography was solidified during a summer program at Idyllwild Arts Academy. "By going to Idyllwild, photography began to play a larger role in my life and changed how I viewed everything through the camera. Up there, all you have is nature, and you gain a different way of looking at things," she explains. Fox won a Scholastic Arts and Writing Award for one of her pictures, which was part of a series of dance photos.
As the daughter of a rabbi, Fox has worked at Temple Isaiah for the past two years, assisting a third-grade teacher. "She would combine Judaism with art in the classroom, which was great for me," she says. Fox is also a storyteller and has used photos and her own drawings to create books. She is toying with the idea of illustrating children's books. She will continue her commitment to Judaism while at Brandeis. "I'm planning on marrying someone Jewish and raising my kids Jewish. I like having a faith to fall back on."
After spending two summers at a yeshiva in Efrat, Aaron Katz is thrilled that he will spend his first year out of high school studying at Kerem B'Yavneh, another Yeshiva in Israel. Throughout high school, he has been very involved in National Conference for Synagogue Youth. He is a member of the group's regional board and participates in youth outreach programs.
Katz helped his school win this year's Model United Nations competition, where he spoke about trade policies in underdeveloped countries. His other academic achievements include Advanced Gemarah and taking the accelerated Torah track. Because his older brother has Down's Syndrome, Katz became involved with Etta Israel, an organization that helps Jews with special needs. Before leaving for Israel, he will work at the group's summer camp, Camp Avraham Moshe. After his year in the Jewish homeland, he hopes to go to Yeshiva University in New York. "I think being a Torah-observant Jew, I'm just going to further the knowledge I have and continue learning. I know [Judaism] will be a huge part of my life."
Dani Yomtov's ethnic-sounding name and Israeli roots give him a built-in connection with Judaism. His first name recalls one of Israel's 12 tribes, and "Yomtov" literally means "good day" in Hebrew. It was more than a good day when Dani learned that he was selected as one of 10 students in his school to participate in the Academic Decathlon. "At our school, the Decathlon has the winning record. It's a big thing for us, and I wanted to challenge myself," he says with pride.
In addition to running cross-country track for a few years, Yomtov is heavily involved in the Boy Scouts. "I'm in the process of becoming an Eagle Scout. I've been doing it since I was little. I've learned a lot of basic skills and community skills. I've really developed as a person," he says.
He will continue his job as a lifeguard at the West Valley JCC this summer before going off to college. Although he is not particularly religious, he strongly identifies as a Jew. "I acknowledge that we have a rich culture and history. Even if I'm not devout, there's a cultural and historical significance for me."
In addition to achieving an excellent academic record, Shira Saltsman sung her way through high school. Her talent led her to participate in the school choir. Outside of school, Saltsman has taken voice lessons with Cantor Perryne Anker for seven years. She feels her greatest high school accomplishment was landing the lead role of the Narrator in her school's musical, "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." She plans to major in psychology with a minor in musical theater.
Saltsman was a member of Milken's Student Government this year, and completed a school internship with Cantor Patti Linsky at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge. "It was a way to combine the three big parts of my life: Judaism, singing and psychology," she says. Saltsman hopes to give back to the community by helping troubled kids as a child psychologist. She plans to join Hillel at Berkeley and become involved in a pro-Israel organization on campus.
The Columbine shootings had a profound effect on Trevor Schwartz. "[The kids] weren't aware of what ethics were, so I felt it was important to teach people about it," he says. Trevor founded S.T.E.A.M. (Students for Teaching Ethical Awareness through Movies), a citywide program for high school students that includes movie screenings, guest speakers from the entertainment industry and community outreach.
In addition to receiving the AP Scholar of Distinction for his outstanding exam scores, Schwartz's articles and poetry has been published in several publications, including "The Concord Review." He is co-president of the Speech & Debate Team, co-editor-in-chief of his school literary magazine and is involved in fencing competitions.
While listing his accomplishments, he is quick to point out that "everything I've done I've enjoyed doing. That's what's driven me. It wasn't for college or for a résumé." He plans to major in history with a minor in creative writing. "I think Judaism is important because it not only gives me a cultural identification, but it gives me a strong ethical background [for] when I go out into the world."