With a touch of awe, we present our annual sampling of outstanding high school seniors. This year’s graduating class includes artists, performers and young entrepreneurs, some of whom have raised many thousands of dollars for people across the globe, reached out to Muslims and Latinos and advocated for the oppressed worldwide. They’ve helped pass state legislation, overcome their own disabilities, ranked statewide in sports and earned national recognition for journalism.
And they have done this all with an underlying belief that with a sense of responsibility and some empowerment, they can change the world.
If what the world needs now is a belief that there are people out there who can — who will — create a better future, we need look no further than the class of 2009.
Samson (Sammy) Schatz : President-in-Training
by Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer
Samson (Sammy) Schatz has always said he wants to be president. “I don’t know if I really want that, or if that’s what I say, but I kind of do,” the Milken Community High School senior said. Whether or not he ever reaches the highest office in the land, he’s already gotten a good start at leadership — and if he does land the job, Israel is assured of having a great, intimate friend.
Last year the Milken student-body president spoke at the installation of the Israel flag at the Israeli consulate on Wilshire Boulevard, and earlier this year he introduced the AIPAC board at the committee’s national conference in Washington, not the first one he has attended. He won — a few times — the award for “best delegate” at the Model United Nations conferences, where he represented Cuba, Ukraine, Japan and, of course, Israel.
Entering Princeton in the fall, he intends to continue his involvement with Israel advocacy, with an eye toward attending the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. A skilled orator and debater, he will take the podium again when he gives his speech as Milken’s valedictorian.
“What makes me who I am and what I do is that I’m always over-packing myself and taking on a whole bunch more than I took on before.” As student-body president, he re-drafted Milken’s student government constitution to clarify the responsibilities of student governors. He helped change the school cell phone policy to allow cell phone use during non-class and non-programmatic periods as well as helping change the dress code to allow non-collared shirts while focusing on overall modest dress. As a member of the student judiciary court, he divined fair “consequences” for students who break the rules, “not because I love getting kids in trouble, but the stimulation of getting people to think,” adding that “we integrate our Jewish values on how not to alienate this person but bring them back into the community in a positive, creative way.”
He still found time to play the lead in this year’s production of “Sweeney Todd,” sing in the school choir and play percussion, sometimes with his father’s band, the Dale Schatz Band, at his family’s synagogue, Sinai Temple. Growing up in a Conservative household and as a student at Sinai Akiba day school since he was in “diapers,” Jewish values have always played a central role in his life. “I’m a very spiritual person, and I get that spirituality from being involved in Camp Ramah, which I’ve done every summer,” he said. He’ll spend this summer as a counselor in Ramah before gearing up for Princeton, where he plans to be actively involved in Jewish campus life.
“I’ve forged my own Jewish identity, and it’s been great.”
From: Milken Community High School
To: Princeton University
Shelby Layne: Turning Jewelry Into Justice
by Rachel Heller, Contributing Writer
It started as a dinnertime conversation. Shelby Layne’s father had just heard a presentation about a new Jewish World Watch (JWW) campaign to provide solar cookers to women in Darfuri refugee camps, so the women wouldn’t have to risk getting beaten or raped when they left camp premises looking for firewood. Then only 15, Shelby’s interest was piqued.
“I’d always felt like I wanted to help the community in some way,” recalled Shelby, now 18 and a graduating senior at Harvard-Westlake School. “I’d heard about Darfur and the suffering going on, but I felt helpless — I didn’t know how I could make a difference.”
When she learned more about the Solar Cooker Project and found it only cost $30 to buy two stoves — which could save women’s lives and protect the dignity of a whole family — she knew she had found her answer. But Shelby sought a larger way to help, beyond donating money from her own pocket. So the enterprising teen devised a plan to turn her jewelry-making hobby into a fundraising drive that, over the past three years, has raked in more than $70,000 for the cause.
Shelby solicited unwanted jewelry from family and friends and made her own necklaces and earrings to peddle at her first sale in September of her sophomore year. She informed JWW of her plans, and the genocide-awareness organization helped spread the word. From that, Shelby was able to give $8,500 in jewelry proceeds and monetary donations to the Solar Cooker Project.
“It blew my mind,” she said. “We literally had a shoebox filled with money. When we counted it at the end of the day, all of a sudden I realized, ‘I could keep going with this.’ When I have the power to literally help save lives, why wouldn’t I?”
Since then, Shelby has done more than keep the fundraising momentum going — she has become an activist leader at her school, training her peers to advocate for refugee causes through the JWW Activism Certification Training Club. She routinely educates synagogue audiences across the city about the Darfurians’ plight and the violence against women. And as a 2008 winner of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, she donated her $36,000 in prize money to fund advocacy and outreach programs through JWW.
When she enters Barnard College this fall, Shelby isn’t sure whether she’ll concentrate in international relations or political science. But whatever she chooses, she knows she wants her studies to incorporate her greatest passion — human rights. l
From: Harvard-Westlake School
To: Barnard College
Aaron Feuer: This Acorn Didn’t Fall Far
by Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer
Aaron Feuer has a car and could drive to school at North Hollywood High School Highly Gifted Magnet every day, but instead he takes the school bus — a clean bus, thanks in part to the efforts of his mother, an environmental attorney and Los Angeles superior court judge who fought to clear Los Angeles’ school busses of carcinogenic fumes.
“People think it’s crazy I don’t drive to school. Why drive to school when I can take the bus?” he said.
Growing up in a household where politics, law and education dominated dinner-table discussions, Aaron seemed destined for a high-school career merging all three fields. As a child he recalls attending stock political receptions with his father, Mike Feuer, now state assemblyman for the 42nd District.
“It was more like, ‘This sounds really cool, Dad, can I come?’ And he’d say ‘Yes.’ Most of the time I’d go for the food,” Aaron said.
He recalls the adults treating him like an equal — and even before he turned 18, he proved that he could hold his own with those in high office. After presenting recommendations for improving student health to the State Board of Education as a freshman, he was elected president of the local branch of the California Association of Student Councils (CASC), a nonprofit student-led organization fostering student leadership. As a senior he went on to become the statewide president of CASC, organizing leadership training programs and collaborating with state government on education legislation.
Thanks to his efforts, a state bill passed in May granting students the legal right to seats on the Los Angeles School board, without the right to vote.
“The Los Angeles school board had been dragging their feet. They’re not really excited to give us what we’re entitled to,” Aaron said.
Last summer he worked as a page for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, doing more mundane work like setting up rooms and running errands. Not that he complained. “Making copies on the Senate floor is the coolest place to make copies.”
The class valedictorian, he said he is leaning toward a career in education, a passion that began in seventh grade, when he launched a program through Temple Emanuel (where he became bar mitzvah) to collect and deliver used computers to underprivileged families. “I can’t imagine what it would be like in middle school these days if you get a research project and couldn’t do it” without a computer of your own, he said.
Aaron will be attending Yale in the fall.
From: North Hollywood High SchoolHighly Gifted Magnet
To: Yale University
Brett Pierce: From the Locker Room to Carnegie Hall, He’s Got the Bases Covered
by Dikla Kadosh, Contributing Writer
Brett Pierce is a real-life Troy Bolton. Like the high school heartthrob from Disney’s “High School Musical” franchise, Pierce is a handsome, popular star athlete at Brentwood School — a baseball and football player — as well as a gifted singer who performed at Carnegie Hall this spring.
As a safety and back-up quarterback on the varsity football team, he was ranked first in interceptions in Southern California and second in the state toward the end of the 2008-2009 season. His final standing was eighth in Southern California — quite impressive for someone who only started playing football in 10th grade on the junior varsity team and took the next season off in order to focus on his first love — baseball.
“My love of baseball came from my grandpa,” said Pierce, who has been playing the sport since he was a little kid. “He used to tell me stories about playing stickball in the streets of Brooklyn.”
This year, Brett managed to find the time and physical energy for both the line of scrimmage and the pitching mound, starting one-third of the baseball games on the varsity team.
But the 6-foot-tall athlete happily tossed aside his pads and cleats this spring in exchange for a tux. Brett is a tenor in the Brentwood Concert Singers choral ensemble, which was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in March with a handful of other distinguished high-school choruses. The group sang Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem,” a 1936 cantata that champions peace over war. Along with his sports gear and machismo, Brett also leaves behind his competitive edge when he sings.
“This concert wasn’t a competition,” he said. “Which I was happy about, because I’m really against competition. That’s not what art is about.”
The Encino native and member of Temple Judea in Tarzana is heading to his No. 1 choice college in the fall — USC— but not to play on the school’s legendary Trojan football team or to pitch on the baseball team. He said he got to play while he could and he’s grateful for that, but college will be a time to explore new things. Having managed to squeeze in some acting at the Young Actor’s Studio between volunteering at SOVA and the Skirball Cultural Center, hosting a school radio show, and acing a couple of AP classes, Brett is contemplating a career in the entertainment industry.
With his breezy charm and silver-screen smile, perhaps he’ll be the star of a Disney movie — make that musical — someday.
From: Brentwood School
Sammy Brunelle: YULA TeenReaches Across Barriers
by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer
It’s not often that an Orthodox Jewish teenager gets involved in the Resurrection Church.
But Sammy Brunelle is all about breaking barriers.
Last year, Sammy started tutoring a student at the school connected with the Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, an institution his father has long supported.
Within a few months he had marshaled several of his peers from YULA yeshiva high school, and the school let them leave early on Fridays to tutor the middle school kids, mostly Latinos, in math and science. Sammy relished the experience, not just of helping the kids learn academics, but also because he knew this would leave a positive impression on kids who had never seen Jews before. He also organized a holiday food drive, bringing 20 YULA students to the church food bank before Thanksgiving.
Now the tutoring program includes 20 or so regulars and new leadership to help it continue when Sammy heads for yeshiva near Jerusalem next year and then to Duke University.
His ability to reach across the divide has found its way to intra-Jewish relations as well. He is a member of the Diller Teen Fellowship, a national program sponsored by the Helen Diller Foundation and run in Los Angeles with The Jewish Federation. For a year, teens of all denominations meet for monthly discussions on Jewish issues and then travel together to Israel on a trip to raise social consciousness.
“The program opened my eyes to some real problems in Israel that I hadn’t seen before, and it helped me to become more accepting of other Jews,” Sammy said.
A starter on the basketball team who made the league all-star team and a captain of the baseball team, Sammy is also the YULA student council vice president, a youth leader at Young Israel of Century City and a National Honor Society member.
He hopes to use all this experience in the biotech field. He has worked summers in Abraxis BioScience, a biotech lab where he’s done things like replicate viruses and mix DNA.
And he hopes to continue doing the unexpected.
“I had always volunteered and done community service, but I wasn’t breaking any barriers, nothing revolutionary,” he reflects. “Now I have things to be fully proud of.”
From: YULA High School
To: Duke University
Alex Kreisman:Reaching New Heights
by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer
When Alex Kreisman sets goals, there isn’t much he’ll let get in his way — whether his goal is getting straight As or adding 11 inches to his height.
Alex was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. In fifth grade, he chose to undergo limb lengthening, a painful, multi-step procedure that involved surgery to break his upper and lower leg bones and attach a shaft to push the bone segments apart a millimeter a day for three months. After another surgery to remove the shaft, he spent three months in a wheelchair and many more months in physical therapy.
The procedure netted Alex four inches, bringing him to about 4 feet 4 inches when he was a sixth-grader at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, a familiar and nurturing environment that helped his recovery.
Seventh grade at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) presented a jarring contrast. He was thrilled to be placed in advanced computer and math classes — he was taking honors algebra with 12th graders — but the kids were cruel.
“Because I was taller, I thought it would be a whole new look on life,” he said. “I was shocked to find that it didn’t really matter that I just went through all this pain and stretching of my bones.”
He switched midyear to The Willows Community School in Culver City — a much softer landing — and for high school has gone to New Roads.
He has always set high standards for himself, considering an A-minus failure. And after ninth grade, he opted for another round of the limb-lengthening procedure, gaining another 7 inches and losing a few months of 10th grade. Today he is 5 feet 3 inches and will undergo arm lengthening this summer.
All the while, he kept his grades high and went out of his way to help others.
“I guess because I was different than everyone else I wanted to show them I was as smart — or even smarter — so I pushed myself to succeed,” Alex said.
He plays basketball and baseball — he made the little league all-star team some years ago — and this year helped his school’s golf team wins the league championship.
Over the years, he’s stayed involved at Temple Israel, working at the summer camp and volunteering for social action events.
At a summer medical seminar at San Diego State University, he “treated” patients played by actors, and he hopes to double major in economics and anatomy at Pitzer College, with an eye toward medical school. His chosen area: Orthopedics.
From: New Roads
To: Pitzer College
Rachel Smith-Weinstein: A Songbird Takes Flight
by Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer
In 2008, Rachel Smith-Weinstein auditioned for the title role of the Los Angeles Opera’s opera camp production of “Friedl,” which tells the story of the artist Friedl Dicker Brandeis, who saved hundreds of children’s artworks during the Holocaust by hiding them in suitcases in the concentration camps. Not only did Rachel get the part, but the writers were so impressed with her mezzo soprano voice that they tailored the score to fit her.
“Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of research and a bunch of shows having to do with the Holocaust, so getting into that and being able to recreate something so close to history was unbelievable to me,” said Rachel, 18.
She first discovered her love for performing when she was 8 through the Donlavy Dance Company in Studio City and honed her voice and musical training at downtown’s Colburn Conservatory. Since middle school she has performed in LA Opera’s community productions, which are performed at the Los Angeles Cathedral, of “Noah’s Flood” and “Judas Maccabaeus,” and in LA Opera camp’s “Figaro’s American Adventure” and “Brundibar,” an opera first performed by the children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Rachel’s home is very much on the stage, and also in Israel. She deferred her studies at Oberlin College in Ohio — her first choice because of its top-notch conservatory — to study Hebrew and Israel studies in Israel through Young Judea, subjects she has taught as a Sunday school teacher at her synagogue, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood.
She describes herself as a “nerd” for her knowledge of “useless facts,” but she’s as much a scientist as a singer, one of just 300 students at North Hollywood High School’s Zoo Magnet, a public school located in Griffith Park, where she has nurtured her love for biology and animals. Caltrans is working with plans she and a group of students submitted for the creation of a wildlife corridor to be incorporated into the building of the 405 freeway overpass near the Skirball Center.
Rachel’s musical talent also came in handy when she worked as an assistant to the bird show at the Los Angeles County Zoo, feeding and training condors, eagles, cranes and roadrunners. “I would sing to them sometimes. They seemed to calm down when I did.” l
From: North Hollywood High School Zoo Magnet Center
To: Oberlin College
Daniel Toker: Just Do It
by Jason Lipeles, Contributing Writer
When most of his friends left for camps over the summer, Daniel Toker, 17, stayed home to work on his mystery/fantasy novel about a man who is killed by Greek gods. Daniel, who reads three hours a day on average, looks forward to growing as a writer at Princeton University.
Even if the course load is heavy, he has no doubt that he can accomplish anything that he sets his mind to. This year, for instance, he took five Advance Placement classes each semester. “I’ve always had this kind of determination. I see a future goal, and I work to it,” Daniel said, “I don’t care how hard it is or how long it takes — I just do it.”
In the eighth grade, Daniel set goals to be an all-star student, finish his second novel, learn a foreign language and become the lead in a school play by the end of his senior year of high school. Amazingly, he accomplished all of these goals and more.
Daniel leads the Israel Advocacy Club and Literary Magazine Club at New Community Jewish High School and, in his spare time, takes one-on-one oratory lessons with the school’s principal, Bruce Powell. In 2008, Daniel blew his classmates and teachers away with a heartfelt speech at a Yom HaAtzmaut assembly that people still compliment him on.
Because both of his parents are from Israel, Daniel has a close connection to the Jewish state. “I feel like I really own it. And I feel like it’s the only place I can really call mine,” he said.
With so much drive, it seems that Daniel would want to do everything on his own. Instead, he recognizes that “the role of the leader is to elect people who are good at what they do and to keep inspiring them to … keep working.”
As for future plans, he hopes to double major in English and civil engineering at Princeton and, after college, work as an architect or a professional writer. l
From: New Community Jewish High School
To: Princeton University
Noa Naftali: Galvanizedby Global Living
by Rachel Heller, Contributing Writer
Growing up in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Los Angeles native Noa Naftali went to elementary school on a kibbutz. Field trips were to the cow pen. Students often came to class barefoot. Rules were lax, and school was always out at noon.
Transitioning to Oakwood School in the fifth grade when her family moved back to Los Angeles was a jolt, to say the least.
“I definitely experienced some culture shock. I didn’t know what Juicy Couture was and the other 10-year-olds did. I was a little bit overwhelmed and confused,” Noa recalled recently. “But I think I’ve adjusted pretty well.”
That’s an understatement, considering what she’s done since then.
A current events-conscious teen, Noa has written for her school newspapers since eighth grade, including during a few-year stint at Harvard-Westlake School and at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Israel when her family moved back for her sophomore year of high school. Middle East issues have most often drawn her interest, such as honor killings in tribal Arab cultures. This year, she also wrote a “green column” for Oakwood’s newspaper, highlighting members of the school community working to protect the environment.
Spending 10th grade in Israel fueled Noa’s passion for learning about other cultures. She volunteered with Friendship’s Way, an after-school enrichment program for Jewish and Arab children in south Tel Aviv, bonding with volunteers of all ethnic backgrounds and drawing inspiration from the way children transcended religious divides to become friends. She was so moved by the experience that when the organization’s decrepit building needed repairs, she helped organize a fundraising concert with popular Israeli singer Noa that took in $100,000 — enough to renovate the whole facility and build space for more children to attend.
Always looking to broaden her horizons, Noa also takes part in Global Nomads, an organization that joins students across the world in videoconference discussions on such hot-button issues as human trafficking and water politics.
When she heads east to attend Tufts University in the fall, Noa hopes to major in — what else? — Middle East history. But whatever career she chooses, she says, she would like traveling to continue to be a big part of her life.
“I would ideally not like to live in one place for more than five years,” she said. “As hard as the first move was for me, every move since then has been easier and has taught me a lot about myself.” l
From: Oakwood School
To: Tufts University
Elana Eden: Never Standing Idly By
by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer
As a ninth-grader transferring to the Modern Orthodox Shalhevet School from the public Paul Revere Middle School, things started off a little shaky for Elana Eden. She wrote two stories for the school paper that she says came out terribly. She was placed in the lowest Hebrew class. And she stumbled over some unfamiliar rules of Orthodoxy.
As a senior, her teachers all hold deep respect for her, calling her a humble and unassuming force. She’s jumped to honors Hebrew, and not only is she editor of the Boiling Point, the school’s award-winning paper, but she garnered three national and two local journalism awards for her opinions and reporting.
Elana has used the newspaper as a platform to encourage her peers to consider and act upon moral issues around the world — from Darfur to paying for online music downloads. Her role model, she says, is Nicholas D. Kristof, the New York Times columnist who travels the world witnessing and reporting on humanitarian crises.
If all the pieces fall into place, she’ll be beginning on that path next year. Before starting at New York University, she is planning to spend a year at Ben-Gurion University volunteering for a program that helps Sudanese refugees who trek to Israel.
She’s already spearheaded fundraisers and awareness activities about Darfur and has raised enough money to pay for a well in a developing country. She’s organized teams for just about every fundraising walk — AIDS, MS, Jewish World Watch, Parkinson’s, breast cancer. When a teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer, Elana went home and ordered a huge batch of pink wristbands to sell to raise money for cancer research.
She is a violinist in the school’s orchestra and alto section leader in the choir, and she also holds diverse interests in politics — she has written about her summer with far-right-wing relatives in a West Bank settlement, and she’s a featured writer on a forum started by a moderate Muslim.
When she helped run the school’s Red Cross blood drive this year, the committee linked the blood drive to a campaign to urge the Red Cross to visit Gilad Shalit, who is being held prisoner by Hamas. The theme for that drive is the mantra that empowers Elana. “Do not stand idly by your brother’s bloodshed.” l
From: Shalhevet School
To: New York University
Lizzie Klein: Creating Greener Pastures for Kids With Disabilities
by Jason Lipeles, Contributing Writer
Lizzie Klein remembers when she was 7 her father telling her what was recyclable and what was not. “I made mistakes all the time, but he’d always correct me,” she said, “always tell me, ‘no, no, no, it goes in this one,’ and explain to me why.”
Now, through Green-4-Kids, a nonprofit organization she founded about a year ago, Lizzie, 17, not only deals with her own trash, but recycles the whole neighborhood’s garbage. Lizzie said that, luckily, her class at Valley Torah High School has supported her ever since she proposed the idea.
Every week, she and her friends collect the recyclables from local homes and restaurants, sort them and turn them in for money at the recycling center.
All of the proceeds are donated to organizations that specialize in helping children, especially children with disabilities. Including additional donations, Green-4-Kids has raised $10,000 for the cause.
Lizzie, who will attend Cal State University Northridge, has a particular interest in helping children and hopes to be a pediatrician someday. She has volunteered with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, delivering flowers to children in the hospital, and looked after children with disabilities at Camp Chesed and The Friendship Circle.
Lizzie is known for her leadership skills in other arenas as well. As student council president, she organizes school activities and social events. Her position requires her to constantly motivate students and staff to work together as a community and, remarkably, she never loses her optimistic spirit. “I try to see the good in everything, and I believe everything happens for a reason — even adversity,” she said.
With a black belt in karate and a passion for kickboxing, she loves to move, but has lessened her commitment to these activities as she has become more involved in her academic and volunteer work.
Recently Lizzie and her friends made a Green-4-Kids Web site and are looking to expand their collection route. So, don’t be too suspicious if a group of smiling teenage girls drives around your neighborhood. They’re not joyriding — they’re collecting trash. l
From: Valley Torah High School
To: Cal State University Northridge