Outstanding Graduate: Michael Sacks — Leading the way


As a key leader in a number of organizations at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, it’s hard to imagine that Michael Sacks ever felt left out. After all, the 18-year-old senior is student body president, chapter co-founder and co-president of Future Business Leaders of America, team captain of the speech and debate and mock trial clubs, and business director and opinion editor of the school paper, The Trailblazer. 

And yet …

“As an observant Jewish student at a secular school, I often felt as if I was the ‘odd one out’ for keeping kosher, observing Shabbat or missing school on Jewish holidays,” he said. 

The answer for Sacks was United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Jewish youth group associated with the Conservative movement for which he now is international president.

“USY provided me with a community of empowerment, one that truly allowed me to become comfortable with my Judaism and with myself,” said Sacks, a former regional vice president and president and international board member.

As president, he travels to the East Coast a few times per year to help set up conferences and communicate with the organization’s leadership. Sacks also serves as representative of six states in the West, including Hawaii, making sure “all operations on a youth level are continuing on a day-to-day basis.”

His personal initiatives at the organization involve connecting USY alumni with present members. Sacks said he is creating an alumni college database of former USY members to help prospective college students navigate the application process. And for two years, he has worked on USY Speaks, which he said “reaches out to every single congregation that has a USY chapter in the country, urging the congregational leadership to afford a past or present USYer [a chance] to speak about his or her experience in USY.” 

[Next Grad: Sepora Makabeh]

Along with his work at USY, the Calabasas resident attended Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, a Jewish summer camp in New York, where he was a counselor-in-training for children with special needs. 

An accomplished student, Sacks will attend Harvard in the fall. When he’s older, Sacks wants to work for an institution like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. “I always thought those were cool,” he said.

In addition to his keen interest in government, Sacks is passionate about social issues. He is the chapter president of the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force at his school, where he sets up speeches, conducts informational sessions and leads social action campaigns. In 2011, he founded Bridging the Gap, a club that brings in speakers to talk about the Middle East conflict. 

Sacks said his ultimate goal in life involves making an impact on the world that extends far beyond the confines of Southern California. “I realize that I have been blessed with opportunity at every step of the way,” he said, “and I hope to make the best of those opportunities.”

A song in his soul


Quinn Lohmann closes his eyes and tilts his head slightly. His fingers find their place between the frets of his guitar, and his voice rings out, soft and crystal clear.

“We all got a life to live. We all got a gift to give. …”

Lohmann stops mid-strum. “I need to tune,” he says, as he twists the keys on the head of his guitar.

Lohmann, who has autism, also has perfect pitch, and he knows when the sound is just right.

“Open up your heart and let it out,” he continues.

Lohmann’s mother, Kathy Finn, said he started playing tunes on the piano by ear when he was 3, so she started him on music therapy, and he quickly excelled at piano and, later, guitar. Finn decided to have Lohmann, who had some severe behavioral issues, study for a bar mitzvah, and with the help of Cantor Steven Puzarne, founder of Vision of Wholeness, Lohmann led the entire service and chanted the whole portion at his bar mitzvah at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

In fact, Lohmann continues to chant Torah at Temple Akiba in Culver City, as well as at other congregations, and at Nes Gadol, the Jewish studies program at Vista Del Mar that he has been a part of for many years.

He’s also a song leader at Nes Gadol, and fills that role at Camp Ramah in the summers, as well.

For many summers Lohmann attended Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer, where he thrilled in enjoying a typical summer with typical kids. He loves to play baseball, basketball—and at a lanky 6-foot-2, he’s pretty good on the court—ride his bike and swim. He went on a NFTY Reform youth group Israel trip without additional support.

Lohmann, who is 19, graduated Village Glen School last year, but stayed on for a yearlong transition program where he worked at the school cafe, and learned job and life skills.

Next year, he’ll be attending Pathway, a program at UCLA Extension where adults with special needs take classes at the university and learn to live independently.

Lohmann would like to continue with his music, perhaps studying to be a cantor or a song leader in a synagogue.

While Lohmann’s conversation and social skills are somewhat stilted—he mostly responds to questions with short answers—the song he chooses to sing tells the story for him.

It is “B’tzelem Elohim,” “In God’s Image,” by Dan Nichols, and Lohmann learned it at camp.

“We all got a peace to bring. We all got a song to sing.

Just open your heart and let it out. …

We all got a mountain to climb. We all got a truth to find.

Just open your heart and let it out. …”

Taking her role(s) seriously


Disguised as an elderly woman in czarist Russia, Sheridan Pierce took the stage at Brentwood School. As the bright lights touched her face and the character took over her body, Pierce poured her heart into her role, and she realized that she was meant to act. 

The play was “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Pierce, a ninth-grader at the time, was playing Yente the matchmaker. The significance of the role, she said, was her connection with the character on a more personal level. “Deep in my soul, I’m already a little old Jewish lady,” she joked.

With leading roles in 12 of her 15 school plays, a role in a film directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) and performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and most recently at Lincoln Center with Brentwood’s Concert Singers, Pierce is certainly an accomplished performer. “I really like to become a character,” she explained.

Pierce also fosters a passion for improvisation and stand-up, participating in The Second City Teen Troupe and The Groundlings. Focused on her desire to make people laugh, Pierce has set her eyes on her ultimate goal: to someday be on “Saturday Night Live.”

Pierce also contributes comedic essays to one of the three Brentwood publications she writes for, and writes Spanish poetry for a foreign-language publication.

Pierce combines her acting and writing career with a commitment to community service. Working tirelessly with organizations such as the Special Olympics, SOVA, Operation Gratitude, TreePeople and the Los Angeles Public Library Teen Council, Pierce has received numerous awards for her service. Pierce’s interest in bettering the community, she said, is motivated by her love of “working together with a lot of people for one goal.”

Despite the additional challenge of a strenuous course load, Pierce managed to find time in each of the last four years to hold positions in student government. “I just wanted to make a difference in my school, and I knew that was the best way to do it,” she said.

She has continued to strive for more responsibility, ultimately landing the highest elected position at her school, that of prefect, during her senior year. She has also earned the positions of arts chair, homecoming/assembly chair, technology liaison and charity coffeehouse chair/host, as well as a seat on the Honor Board.

Talking to Pierce is like watching a Ron Popeil infomercial—at the end of every sentence you find yourself thinking, “But wait, there’s more!” And after a conversation with Pierce, one thing becomes clear: She is always driven to act. Whether on stage as a character or within her community as a leader, Pierce pours her heart into every role she takes on.

“I’m definitely not a lazy person,” she joked. “I like to set a lot of goals for myself, and there is so much I want to do in my life. I just really get inspired to do the most that I can at an early age.”

Dual identity yields an international outlook


Eeman Khorramian could see himself entering the political world. The Palisades Charter High School senior has been highly active in school affairs and with the school’s student government since ninth grade. His leadership skills even earned him the position of student body president.

Following the Iran election protests in 2009, Khorramian co-founded a campus chapter of Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), a secular nonpartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

Khorramian said being Iranian-American has made him internationally aware, and he confessed to having an addiction to world news.

“I tend to follow BBC and international coverage rather than just American news, which focuses on domestic issues. I don’t just follow Iranian issues; the disaster in Syria and the Arab Spring really caught my attention, too,” he said.

The articulate 18-year-old said growing up Iranian and Jewish has been one of his biggest challenges so far.

“Being Iranian and Jewish has definitely been the hardest thing for me to figure out. It’s very difficult to be Iranian and proud to be an Iranian, and be Jewish and being proud of being a Jew. I’m very much in touch with both sides, and I am proud of both, and neither takes away from the other.”

Khorramian, who is graduating in the top 2 percent of his class, said studying subjects that allow him to put in his full effort is very important to him.

“I try to challenge myself in the subjects I choose, and my school has allowed me to have an interdisciplinary education,” he said. “I’ve also gotten the chance to work on leadership here.”

Khorramian is not getting sentimental about leaving high school for UCLA, but he does have a lot of praise for the education he received.

“I hear a lot of people talk about leaving in a negative sense, but I’m ready to leave,” Khorramian said. “I feel like my high school has given me everything I need to be ready for college, so I’m looking forward to this next step in my education.”

His credentials suggest a career in politics, but Khorramian isn’t rushing the decision. He’s put his major down as “undecided.”

“I’m just really looking forward to going to UCLA, and I feel like my education is just beginning,” he said excitedly. “I love biology, and I could see myself being a doctor. But I’m also fascinated by international relations. If I could find a way to merge the two as a career, that would be perfect.”

Finding common ground


Shalhevet journalism teacher Joelle Keene says that Leila Miller, editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Boiling Point, has set a high standard for journalism, integrity and optimism amid complex human relations.

“[She is] wise enough to know that real differences among people do exist, [but] she has set out on a personal mission to work through them to communities’ common humanity,” she said.

A Quill and Scroll award-winning writer, 17-year-old Miller has penned several stories about Jewish communities in other countries. She contacted Jewish sources in Japan last year to interview them about the earthquake and tsunami. She also published an article about the strategies and organizations that
Mexican Jews use to cope with violence in their country.

“It’s been really interesting meeting these people all over the world that I would not have been able to meet otherwise,” Miller said. “And I learned a lot about them.”

Miller’s writing also recognizes that geographic barriers are not the only obstacles to interaction between communities. She wrote an article about Muslim teenagers in Los Angeles and the difficulties they faced attending public schools—from balancing religion and heritage to interacting with misinformed classmates and teachers. She was happy to discover that the girls she interviewed had taped a copy of the article to the youth-group bulletin board at the Islamic Center of Southern California.

The ties Miller made while writing about the Muslim teenagers extended beyond the publication of her article when she decided to organize an interfaith picnic. In May 2011,

11 students from Shalhevet met with 33 teens from the Islamic Center’s youth group. The picnic was such a success that a second one was organized.

Miller said she hoped the picnics would help dispel the preconceptions between communities, which do not often interact. “They were primarily social events for kids to ask questions about each other,” she said.

Miller has experience balancing multiple cultures in her own life. Born in Argentina and fluent in Spanish, she has returned to Argentina every summer since she was young. She worked with the Tzedaká Foundation in Buenos Aires during the summer after her sophomore year, and the following summer she worked as an assistant teacher in English classes at Escuela Martín Buber.

Miller has played classical piano since she was 7, and is currently the accompanist for her school’s choir.

Miller plans to attend Oberlin College next fall. She wants to “keep an open mind and take a wide variety of classes,” but is considering studying English or creative writing, she said.

Keene said Miller is “a kind of ambitious humanist, someone who has never seen a challenge she doesn’t think can be solved by working harder, or a problem that can’t be solved by some dialogue and a smile.”

Healing others, and herself


Almost every day, Marissa Meyer, an 18-year-old senior at Agoura High School, heads out to the stable where her riding teacher rehabilitates abused horses. There she works with her 15-year-old gelding, Lucky. Helping to heal him after his difficult life at a dude ranch has been one of her passions for the last seven years and has also helped spur her interest in physical therapy and sports medicine in humans.

This fall, she’ll attend UCLA’s student nursing program with the hope of eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon. “Instead of going straight to medical school, nursing will allow me to learn to build relationships with patients and interface with staff, which will help me become a better doctor,” she said.

Meyer has honed her leadership skills by serving on the board of Congregation Or Ami’s youth group, where she created a Passover-in-the-wilderness service, and also through the United States Youth Volleyball League, where she’s in charge of training 25 adult coaches.

Meanwhile, she’s maintained a 4.2 grade-point average despite a number of health issues, including surgery to remove an extra electrical passageway in her heart that had left her dizzy and weak for months several years ago. In 2011, Meyer cut a tendon in her right hand, rendering it useless for a time during her most difficult academic year. Undaunted, she took classroom notes with her left hand and even took the SAT with her hand in a splint. An emergency appendectomy last summer didn’t prevent her from leaving for two East Coast camps — one a medical leadership program, another on sports medicine — five days later. 

“I was in pain because it was hard to walk and stand,” Meyer said, “but nevertheless, it was a very rewarding experience.”

Her own medical issues have only solidified her desire to become a physician. “It’s amazing how the body isn’t just stagnant but constantly changing and healing itself,” she said.

Working toward ‘never again’


Milken Community High School senior Leah Gluck is dedicated to raising awareness about genocide, even though it seems so distant and unsolvable.

“I think it’s an issue that really is very far away for a lot of people at my school … and I think that it’s important,” Gluck said.

Since her freshman year, the 18-year-old has worked with Jewish World Watch (JWW), a nonprofit that focuses on preventing genocide and mass atrocities across the globe as well as engaging individuals and communities to take action locally.

Gluck recently co-created an exhibition, “From Darkness to Light,” set in Milken’s beit midrash, spotlighting the genocide in Darfur and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Gluck planned the exhibition over the course of nearly five months and built the displays during a 15-hour marathon. Student docents led their peers through “From Darkness to Light,” which featured video interviews with victims, photographs of refugee camps, drawings made by children living in camps, and an “action center” where students pledged to become involved with JWW.

For the exhibition’s culmination, Gluck led an effort that consisted of Milken’s entire student body calling the White House at once to discuss Sudan. “That was super cool,” she said.

Gluck has put her design skills to use as head editor of Milken’s yearbook, serving as the point person for section editors and student staff members.

She also spends considerable time in the water, as a member of Milken’s water polo and swim teams. This summer, she plans to work as a lifeguard at Camp Ramah.

Outside of her JWW advocacy, Gluck gets her tikkun olam fix volunteering with KOREH L.A., an organization that helps young students develop their reading abilities, and she spends every Shabbat supervising young children of adult congregants at B’nai David-Judea, leading them in davening, play time and various activities.

This fall, Gluck will attend Washington University in St. Louis, where she might pursue her interest in psychology.

For now, she has enough on her plate to keep her busy.

“I’m just used to not getting home until 7,” she said.

A real page-turner


Corinne Kentor may be coming of age in the iPad and Kindle era, but she feels most at home surrounded by books. The more classic the volumes, the better. It’s “Candide” and “Don Quixote” that thrill this New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) senior, who lights up when she discusses the works of Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters.

“I wrote my college essay on why our house is like a library,” said Kentor, 17, who will leave her Bell Canyon abode this fall to study English literature at Yale University. “There’s a stocked section for each kind of literature.”

Kentor also traced her literary passion to influential teachers in San Fernando Valley public schools, including Round Meadow Elementary School librarian Carole Farhit. “She was this tiny woman, but with a deep, raspy English-accented voice—it was perfect for storytelling. I used to have lunch with her in the library.”

In her years at NCJHS, Kentor immersed herself in languages, achieving fluency in Spanish and studying Hebrew. At Yale, she said, she plans to continue her Hebrew studies and explore Arabic. She’s dabbled in English poetry and even attempted a novel as part of a “NaNo-WriMo” project—for National Novel Writing Month, in November. Spanish teacher Raquel Safdie and AP English teacher Michelle Lindner have called Kentor’s writing university-level work.

“I want to be an English professor someday,” Kentor said. “I also really want to be an author—I feel most at home in prose.” The senior honed her editing and coaching skills this school year by shepherding the young school’s first newspaper, The Prowler. She and her co-editor, Jason Tinero, helped boost the paper’s staff to 17 students and published five issues—all on extracurricular time.

“I’m really, really proud,” Kentor said. “The quality of the writing has changed and developed so much. I feel proud every time I get to hand out the paper—it reflects the spirit of the school.”

Kentor, who chose between Stanford University and Yale, credits her stellar grades to a deep love of school, “which I know is not that normal.” Never a procrastinator, she learned time management in elementary school when she balanced long practice hours for rhythmic gymnastics with homework.

An injury in eighth grade ended her gymnastics career but led Kentor to another graceful passion: yoga. “It gave me the physical stimulation without the competitiveness, which I hate.” She recently earned her teaching certification and started leading Hatha/Vinyasa flow groups at InnerPower Yoga in Woodland Hills. Kentor said she’s eager to join the “Yogis at Yale” group and continue teaching. “Yoga gives me a community wherever I go.”

And what’s a bookworm to do with her last West Coast summer? Her very creative family, including mom Adrienne, dad Eric and older sister Nikki—an intern with local circus troupe Dream World Cirque—are planning a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. To family and friends, Kentor may then quote the Bard: “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Sometimes, less is more


In her junior year, Oakwood senior Katherine Bernstein spent two weeks in Sierra Leone with the North Hollywood school’s immersion program. Amid carrying buckets of cement for a new school and helping to paint a map of the world in its library, she was struck by a major difference between life in Southern California and the West African nation.

“I was expecting to go there and have some depressing, transformative experience. Like, one that makes you appreciate what you have. And it was transformative, but not in that way,” the 17-year-old said.

She was surprised to find that people seemed happier there than they are here, despite the lack of electricity and indoor plumbing.

The people she worked with in Sierra Leone focused on people rather than things, Bernstein said, and she was taken aback by how much attention the people she visited with in Sierra Leone gave to her when she spoke, making her realize how distracted people often are in the United States.

Children followed Bernstein’s classmates wherever they went and got excited when the American students learned to count to 10 in their language, Mende. The children also made toys out of water bottles or whatever else they could find, Bernstein said.

“I think people here have an expectation of having things. I remember in middle school, people used to break their phones to get news ones. It’s never enough,” she said.

Bernstein graduates from Oakwood with a 4.42 grade-point average, having taken four AP classes in the past year: human geography, physics C, English and Spanish. She refers to her number theory and cryptology classes as “really cool.”

Judaism’s emphasis on education has had a large impact on her. “There’s an attitude in my family about education—that it’s very important to know about the world,” she said.

Bernstein will attend Stanford University in the fall, and she is considering studying medicine.

Outside of school, Bernstein has volunteered with L.A. Family Housing for several hours every week since middle school. This organization aids families in transitioning out of homelessness and severe poverty. As a volunteer, Bernstein helps the children in the program with art projects and homework.

A piano player for most of her life, she taught one boy piano through the program and is now trying to collect musical instruments and compile a music library for the center.

“I love working with kids,” Bernstein said. “I probably want to do something with kids in the future. I really like spending my time that way. I feel like I’ve developed over the years as a teacher.”

It’s all about the kids


When his late grandmother was first diagnosed with terminal cancer three years ago, Jason Aftalion was moved by the volunteers who visited her at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “I was so touched by how they talked to her and spent time with her, so she wouldn’t be lonely,” said Aftalion, a Persian-American senior at Milken Community High School.

Aftalion was inspired to sign up as a volunteer, drawing on “the Jewish values of tikkun olam, or repairing the world,” he said. After a six-month application process, the then-15-year-old was assigned to work at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. He still spends four hours visiting patients each Saturday.

Aftalion, 18, still remembers a young heart patient named Michael who loved pirates. He delivered a toy pirate ship to the boy and spent an hour and a half playing with the delighted child. “He was going through more than I’ve ever been through in my entire life, and he could still have fun,” Aftalion said, marveling at the boy. “It meant so much for me to see how excited he was.”

For his summer-school project at USC’s business school, Aftalion co-founded a nonprofit organization, curechildren.org, which aims to buy a breathing machine for a children’s hospital, among other goals. He kick-started the fundraising by working as a private children’s sports coach, drawing on expertise gleaned as a captain and “most valuable player” on Milken’s basketball and track and field teams.

Back at school, he helped rekindle Milken’s waning Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, quadrupling student volunteers. As a mentor himself, he said, he’d “try to give advice and moral perspective. It was amazing when kids really opened up and talked about their lives.”

For all of his activism, Aftalion has been honored on a “Cool Kids” segment on KABC and on “The Young Icons” program on KTLA; he’s also received a $1,000 scholarship and a citation from the Los Angeles mayor’s office. This fall he’ll attend USC and hopes eventually to combine his passion for kids and business by serving as the president of a children’s hospital. “My Jewish values will help me to become the person I want to be,” he said.

Despite diplomas, Ethiopian Israelis can’t find jobs


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Asaf Negat, 29, made his way to Israel from Ethiopia as an 11-year-old boy and worked hard to find his way in a new land and learn to speak a new language. Eventually, Negat graduated with a business degree from one of the country’s top universities.

However, since completing his studies in the summer of 2006, he has not found work in his field. Unemployed, Negat spends his days trolling the Web sites of banks and investment houses, seeking job openings and sending out resumes.

“It’s not exactly a hopeful situation,” said Negat, whose only job since graduation has been as a counselor at an absorption center for newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants. “It makes people like me feel pessimistic, especially when we look at our younger brothers and sisters who see what we are going through.”

Negat is not alone.

Of the approximately 4,500 Ethiopian Israelis who have earned university degrees, fewer than 15 percent have found work in their professions, according to a recent study. Instead, most end up working temporary public-sector jobs serving the Ethiopian Israeli community, remaining disconnected from the larger professional Israeli workforce.

Working in such jobs, which often are project-based and subject to elimination once funding runs out, these Ethiopian Israelis earn less than other college-educated Israelis. Ethiopian Israeli graduates earn an average of $1,375 a month, compared with $1,925 monthly for their Jewish Israeli peers, according to a joint study of the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

“On the one hand, one wants Ethiopians with academic degrees to help make changes in the community by working within it, but on the other hand, these jobs are not highly paid, often not very stable and don’t have much potential for promotion,” said Sigal Shelach, director of programs for immigrants and minorities at Tevet, a joint government-JDC-Israel employment initiative. “So there is a kind of vicious circle going on.”

Negat’s easy smile vanishes when he speaks of the challenges of breaking into the ranks of the educated Israeli middle class.

“We are the role model for the younger generation,” he said. “But how are they supposed to react when they go from being encouraged by our studies to watching us finish university, only to return back at home, stuck, with no work?”

It’s hardly the fairy-tale landing into the white-collar Israeli workforce many young Ethiopian Israelis imagine for themselves once they make it beyond a host of obstacles to start their university careers.

However, in Israel, where personal connections and unwritten cultural codes are especially strong, Ethiopian Israeli graduates face a significant disadvantage in finding jobs compared with their native-born peers. For one thing, they are less likely to have the professional network of connections a typical Israeli might have to land a job.

“They think they graduate and that will be it, but most of them don’t have help of where to go and what to look for,” said Danny Admesu, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a child and now is the director of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews. “Usually in Israeli families relatives work in different fields, they have connections and can give advice. You learn not just in university but by meeting people and parents’ contacts. But these people graduate and then don’t know what to do.”

Furthermore, many Israeli employers rely on assessment centers to screen potential job candidates before granting interviews. Some experts say the centers have unintentional cultural biases — for example, asking questions about aggressive decision-making styles and leadership that Ethiopian Israeli job candidates answer much differently than native-born Israelis.

To address that problem, the JDC is piloting a program for more culturally sensitive screening tests.

Compounding matters, many Ethiopian Israelis come from Israel’s periphery — outside the heavily populated center of the country — where jobs are scarce.

There is also the problem of racism, some say.

“We cannot shut our eyes to it and need to talk about it,” said Ranan Hartman, founder and chair of the Ono Academic College, one of a handful of Israeli institutions trying to address the problems facing Ethiopian Israeli graduates. “If we hide from it, it won’t be solved.”

Hartman said the school’s outreach to Ethiopian Israelis, which is supported in part by the Jewish Agency for Israel, aims to achieve nothing less than a revolution in the Ethiopians’ status in Israeli society.

“How do you inform society to respect the Ethiopian community? You do it by creating islands of excellence, and the success stories can then go and break stigmas,” Hartman said.

The college boasts among its Ethiopian graduates the first Ethiopian diplomat and accountant in Israel.

Now in its second year, the program has provided 200 students and graduates with intensive workshops in job searching, management and leadership skills, connected them with mentors and made high-level connections and introductions to help pave their way to interviews and, hopefully, jobs.

Supported by the Jewish Agency and the UJA-Federation of New York, the program coordinates its efforts with the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya and Bank Hapoalim. Yifat Ovadiah, general director of the organization, said its goal is to help place 1,000 Ethiopian graduates in highly sought-after jobs in their fields in the next five to seven years.

“The idea is that 1,000 people can help change perceptions,” Ovadiah said. “By having visibility in places like the country’s largest accounting and law firms, these people will be able to advance and become influential themselves.”

The group taps top Israeli executives — the CEO of Bank Hapoalim is among the group’s volunteers — to spread the word about the program’s high-quality graduates.

Negat is one of this year’s participants. He said the program is his lifeline to finding work.

At a meeting center at Kibbutz Shfaim, Negat joined several others for a workshop where he had a one-on-one counseling session with an experienced businessman. Under the shadow of an oak tree, Danny Heller helped Negat troubleshoot how best to approach employers as he tries to embark on a career in finance.

Heller, also addressed a larger group of business and economics students during the workshop, reminding them of how extraordinary their journeys have been — and to play that up during their next job interview.

“You have incredible life stories,” the businessman told the group. “You went through things most people never had to, and your abilities, the walls you had to break down, are what will bring you to your next job.”

Gap-Year Kids Leave to Study For A Year in Israel


Many college-bound high school graduates are packing up their inflatable sofas and plan to stay abreast Middle East news using wireless laptops. But some of their peers will get a real-time glimpse of current events as they prepare for a year of study in Israel.

In the wake of the recent eruptions of violence in the region, the resolve of students intent on spending a “gap year” between high school graduation and freshman year of college engaged in study or service in Israel has remained strong. While most are relieved that the cease-fire has eased immediate threats, they know that the situation is far from over.

The war in northern Israel has left her feeling “no different than before” about studying in Jerusalem, said Adina Stohl, who graduated from the Yeshiva of Los Angeles Girls High School (YULA) in June and is starting at the Michlalah women’s school in Jerusalem in September.

Alison Silver, an alumna of Shalhevet High School who left for Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim in late August, shares Stohl’s conviction that her year in Israel will remain relatively unaltered despite recent turbulence in the region.

“I think that in the beginning the seminaries are going to be stricter,” she said, “but I was already anticipating a year of ‘You shouldn’t do this, it’s not safe.'”

julief@jewishjournal.com.

2005 Grads: Oh The Places They’ll Go.


Leor Hackel,
Shalhevet School
Pico-Robertson
Yale

Whether it was discussing the Terri Schiavo case or debating whether students should get PE credit for participating on sports team, Leor Hackel had one goal for the weekly town hall meetings he lead as head of Shalhevet’s agenda committee: to keep the students engaged and interested, and to encourage them to take the initiative, just as he had been inspired.

“The school teaches you to really care about your community and to do whatever you need to do for your community,” he said. “Shalhevet gives students a lot of responsibility, and having it really helps you use it and take advantage of it.”

Getting up in front of the entire high school every week was not unnatural for Hackel, who loves drama. He’s had the lead in and directed several plays at Shalhevet, including “Tartuffe” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” and last year founded a comedy improv club at school.

Hackel was captain this year of the Model U.N. team (which came in second to YULA), worked on the school paper and was also the gabbai at B’nai David-Judea’s teen minyan.

Yeshiva in Israel awaits Hackel next year, and after that he’s headed to Yale, where he plans to major in theater studies, cognitive science or English.


Michelle Ahoobim
Taft High School
Tarzana
UCLA

Michelle Ahoobim, student body president at Taft High School in Tarzana, isn’t the type of person to keep things to herself. So in 11th grade, when she got turned on to Torah study and traditional Judaism, it was no surprise that she invited friends to spend Shabbat in her home, and dragged them along to the Torah study groups, run by the National Council of Synagogue Youth and the Jewish Student Union.

“I love it and I want to share it with everyone else, so I do what I can,” said Ahoobim, who is also a varsity soccer player.

While taking on Shabbat observance and keeping kosher, Ahoobim has integrated her Jewish values with the work she does at school. As student body president, she headed up efforts to get her school involved in walks and runs for breast cancer research and other charities. Under her leadership, the school raised $5,000 in pennies for cystic fibrosis. She coordinated with the district to get much-needed benches and tables for Taft students who usually ate lunch standing or sitting on the floor.

Ahoobim also was an organizer for StandWithUs’ Caravan for Democracy, where she got kids together to learn about Israel and socialize. She plans to stay involved in the Jewish community when she attends UCLA next year.


Sami Reznik
Milken Community High School
Encino
Clark University

When Sami Reznik’s mother suggested last December that he get his school involved in advocating for the people of Darfur, Sudan, he was reluctant.

“I wasn’t one of those students who took a lot of time to get involved,” admits Reznik, who played varsity basketball for Milken.

But $15,000 later, Reznik has become proof positive of what a student can get done with some good friends, a lot of hard work, a supportive administration and a passionate student body.

Reznik and his two good friends, Benji Davis and Jason Zarrow, launched Milken’s Gift of Life campaign to build wells in Sudan. They raised a remarkable $9,000 in nine days through a raffle, sold green “Save Darfur” wrist bands and teacher holiday cards and even got the upper-school principal, Roger Fuller, to promise to shave his head as incentive (he did).

In two weeks, the campaign raised $15,000.

Reznik has a junior lined up to take over next year, when he is at Clark University in Massachusetts.

“I learned that a real community — especially a community like Milken, but also the Jewish community at large — has so much potential. I cared so much about this, and I was able to tell my friends that I care, and my friends told their friends, and then everyone cared about this.”


Jessica Lane
Harvard-Westlake
Hancock Park
Dartmouth

Jessica Lane grew up in a family where Judaism was somewhere in the cultural background, but not central in the lives of either her Presbyterian mother or Jewish father. When she was 11, Jessica decided to study for her bat mitzvah at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

She is now in the leadership of Temple Israel’s youth group. In her confirmation class, she studied Reform rabbinic responsa on issues of the day — abortion, gay rights, social action. She has brought those values to bear on her work at Harvard-Westlake, where she heads up the Gay-Straight Alliance.

“My grandfather came out in the ’50s, after he had my mother and her three siblings with my grandmother, so I was always raised in a way where gay relationships weren’t strange — people loved people, and it didn’t matter,” she said.

Lane is a member of Student Activists for Human Rights and on Harvard-Westlake’s basketball team, is a National Merit finalist and plays the bassoon in the school symphony.

Next year she is attending Dartmouth, where she was drawn to the Women in Science program. She plans to major in neurobiology, and eventually get into the field of Alzheimer’s research.


Sara Heller
La Ca?ada High School
La Ca?ada
Amherst College

When Sara Heller found out that the first round of auditions for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Royal Court was on Yom Kippur last year, she arranged for a make-up date.

Sara is co-captain of the La Canada High School girls’ volleyball team, which has won league titles for the last four years and made it to the statewide quarterfinals this year, with Sara, the setter, named as a co-MVP. She’ll be on the volleyball team at Amherst College in the fall. She loves ceramics and arts, was an editor for the school yearbook, is in the National Honor Society and, in her early high school years, was active in B’nai B’rith Girls.

Most of her Jewish involvement comes from Temple Sinai of Glendale, where she tutors bar and bat mitzvah kids.

“I love the prayers, and I really enjoy reliving my religious school experience through the kids I am teaching,” she said. “My bat mitzvah was one of the most influential things in my life in terms of giving me my identity and knowing who I am and who I want to be within the Jewish community.”


Robin Broder
Cleveland High School and Los Angeles Hebrew High
Encino
Barnard/Jewish Theological Seminary

Until her principal pointed it out a few weeks ago, Robin Broder had never calculated that she was spending seven hours a week at Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHHS). It was just something she willingly worked into an already packed schedule: swim team, student government, various charitable projects, a women’s group, a school service group and maintaining a 4.3 GPA.

Broder builds her Jewish identity at LAHHS, the Jewish Student Union that meets weekly at Cleveland High, and through United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) Valley Beth Shalom Chapter. Robin spent a summer with USY traveling across the United States on the Wheels program, and another summer in Israel and Eastern Europe.

“In Wyoming we had a synagogue to go to and when I was in Poland the Jewish community was there to help us,” she said.

But it’s more than community that keeps her drawn to the tradition. “There is so much depth and so many layers to Judaism, and things you don’t see if you are in shul twice a year. There is intense, philosophical, intellectual learning,” she said.

Next year, Broder will attend the joint program at Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she plans to major in physics and philosophy.


Aaron Schultz
YULA
Pico-Robertson
Yeshiva University

Aaron Schultz spends several dozen hours a week immersed in studying Talmud.

“The one thing that should guide a Jew in his life is Gemara,” Schultz said.

“Whatever you do in life you have to go beyond the letter of the law and have a positive influence on anyone you interact with, in the Jewish world or in the working world.”

That philosophy also motivates Schultz in his work with the Etta Israel Center, where he volunteers with physically and developmentally disabled children and adults. He accompanies them on Shabbaton weekends and other social gatherings, and is the liaison to YULA to gather other volunteers.

Schultz headed up the school’s champion Model U.N. team, where for the past two years they beat out 30 other schools in debates and policy questions. For the past two years he was named Best Delegate.

A National Merit commended scholar and a member of the National Honor Society, Schultz will attend Yeshiva University in New York as a Distinguished Scholar, after he spends next year at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Israel.

A Special School?


While some large schools measure success by how many kids get into the Ivy League or even whether their students have excelled in community involvement, some smaller schools have more basic measures.

Ohr HaEmet Institute (OHI) on Robertson Boulevard near Olympic Boulevard is home to 44 girls of diverse backgrounds. Many, but not all, are from immigrant families from Russia, Israel or Iran. Most girls go there because they need individualized attention and an intimate environment to help them excel.

Tehila Mirakhor, this year’s valedictorian, started at OHI in 10th grade, soon after arriving from Iran. She knew no English, was somewhat familiar with Jewish tradition, and knew only her cousin at the 11-year-old Orthodox girls high school. She was terrified.

Today, Mirakhor has the poise and diction of an accomplished, self-confident young woman.

“The teachers and the students here are very close, and you feel like you are a family,” she said. “They help you gain self-confidence, they help you learn everything you need.”

Mirakhor started in ESL three years ago, and is now in honors English. She knew only some Jewish traditions a few years ago, but now she and her family observe Shabbat and kashrut. She is attending Santa Monica Community College next year, and hopes to eventually go to medical school.


Monika Itaev also had a rough start at OHI.

“In ninth grade I was really obnoxious,” she admits. “I never did my homework, I was in with the wrong crowd — it was a disaster.”

After a few too many visits to the principal’s office, Itaev decided to turn herself around. The teachers and students helped her out, and now her grades are back up and she has become more religiously observant. She plans to continue her Jewish studies next year at Touro College when it opens a new campus in Los Angeles.

“I suggest this school for everybody,” Mirakhor said. “When you graduate, you see the world in a different perspective, and it’s a better world.” — JGF

Gifts for Grads That Will Make the Grade


It’s hard to find that perfect gift for the high school or college graduate — something personal and thoughtful but also useful. It’s even harder for distant relatives and friends of the graduate.

Cash and gift certificates can be a tad too impersonal (albeit useful), but you don’t want to break the bank. Whether buying for a high school or college grad, here’s a list of unisex gifts under $50 sure to make the grads give caps off to you:

Quad Camera

Accoutrements’ Quad Camera takes four pictures per click, creating four segment images that capture motion. The prints from this camera are great for creating kitschy wall art for apartments or dorms. This plastic no-flash camera uses standard 35-mm film. You can find this cute little camera at ZGallerie stores. ” target=”_blank”>koshergiftbaskets.com. $14.95.

Traveler’s Journal

This brown traveler’s journal is the perfect size to tote on graduation trips and record adventures and memories along the way. It lies flat so it can be written in easily, and refill sheets can be purchased. ” target=”_blank”>www.swissarmy.com. $16.

Tassel Photo Frame

Let the grad keep a reminder of the special day with this photo frame with tassel keeper. The frame has a space for a 4 x 6 photo and a cardholder and enough white space around the photo for friends and relatives to sign. ” target=”_blank”>www.amazon.com. $19.95.

Crate and Barrel Beach Chair

Grads are ready for a little rest and relaxation after graduation. Heck, they’ve earned it. This Maui Beach Chair lets grads catch some rays and relax comfortably in this comfortable padded chair with foam headrest.

The steel-framed chair adjusts to three positions for comfortable reading and tanning. It comes with an easy-carry shoulder strap so it can be taken anywhere from the back yard to the beach. Available in sky blue, cherry red and citrine yellow. ” target=”_blank”>www.target.com. $29.99.

Touro Teardrop Mono

This minitravel backpack is the ideal backpack for the graduation “I’m off to find myself” trip. This one-strap adjustable pack is dual density, with padded foam to keep out moisture from summer showers. With a built-in pocket and U-shaped front, it comes seven of colors — from candy pink to sky blue. ” target=”_blank”>www.william-sonoma.com. $49.95.