Jewish Journal

A not-so-random sampling of the Class of 2007

June 7, 2007 | 8:00 pm

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

Tess Lerner-Byars
Tess Lerner-Byars 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.

-- JGF

Getting Beyond Small Talk

Ori Kanefsky
Ori Kanefsky

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.

-- JGF

Ms. Morgenstern Goes to Washington

Madeleine Morgenstern

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