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Outstanding seniors, Class of 2008

June 5, 2008 | 2:34 pm

Talia Hill

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.

Isabel Kaplan

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.

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