November 18, 2018

Leadership, Debate and Giving Back

Ryan Ofman, 18
High School: de Toledo High School
Going To: Yale University

Taking 10 advanced-placement classes, serving as student council president and captain of the Speech & Debate team, participating in special interest clubs and school and community events, and playing on the varsity tennis team might be too much activity for some people to handle. Ryan Ofman is not one of those people.

“I’ve always loved keeping busy, doing as many things as I possibly can. That’s when my brain is the most satisfied,” the National Honor Society member told the Journal. He rattled off a diverse set of passions including physics, philosophy, astronomy, computer programming and coding, and reading and writing poetry. He co-runs the chess club, contributes to his school’s literary magazine, and tutors fellow students. With Sherut L’Olam, a Jewish youth leadership organization, he has distributed food to the needy and planted trees in fire-affected Topanga Canyon.

“When I was young, I loved doing jigsaw puzzles. I did my first 500-piece puzzle when I was 8,” Ofman said. “It was intensely difficult, but I pushed through. I feel the same way about academics. I love smashing down walls because I know I’m going to come out on the other side that much stronger.”

As student council president, Ofman recently succeeded in getting tampon dispensers installed in the school bathrooms, but is quick to credit his fellow students for the idea. He attributes his success in student government to “Speech & Debate teaching me that what I say and how I say it matters,” he said. “I think we have a bit of a tendency to be overly defensive and not listen to opposition. Having to debate both sides of an issue has changed my ability to look at anything, whether it’s an argument with my sister or a huge political event.”

“I love smashing down walls because I know I’m going to come out on the other side that much stronger.”

Now living on Los Angeles’ Westside, Ofman grew up in Calabasas with his parents, Josh and Julie, older brother Jason, now a Rice University student, and twin sister, Lauren, who plans to enter George Washington University this fall as a journalism major. 

He had his bar mitzvah at Temple Judea in Tarzana and recently went to Israel with March of the Living. “It’s an amazing place, a flawed place. But you love Israel because you love what Israel means to the Jewish people,” he said.

Ofman described himself as “not very observant. But I feel unbelievably connected to the Jewish community. That’s what it’s about for me,” he said. “I think my love for academia and my thirst for knowledge stems from Jewish culture and asking questions, thinking more deeply about things. The incredible rabbis I’ve had, the members of my community and my grandparents have been my symbols of Judaism, rather than God. I’ve never needed a divine force.”

Ofman toured several colleges but chose Yale after attending a particularly engaging philosophy lecture and discovering that the university offered a combined major in philosophy and physics. 

After a trip to the National Speech & Debate Association’s national tournament in June, Ofman will spend the summer working as a camp counselor and robotics specialist at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley.

Writing Her Future in Journalism

Hannah Jannol, 18
High School: Shalhevet High School
Going to: The New School

Hannah Jannol, 18, has dreams of being a journalist, and she’s certainly gotten off to a good start as editor-in-chief of The Boiling Point, Shalhevet High School’s student newspaper. She also has written for the Jewish Journal and the Santa Monica Daily Press, and has won multiple awards for her writing.

This summer, the Venice native will undertake a paid internship at The Jewish News of Northern California in San Francisco. Jannol met the editor, Sue Fishkoff, at the American Jewish Press Association conference in fall 2017. 

“I was talking to her and she said she’s a fan of The Boiling Point,” Jannol said in a phone interview, “and we discussed maybe me interning there. So I emailed her to follow up and I got accepted.”

Following her internship, Jannol will head to New York this fall to study at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts. 

“I opted for The New School because it’s in New York City and it has a really strong writing curriculum, and it’s a very creative and interdisciplinary space,” she said. “Every time I’m [in New York], I feel such a sense of belonging. I feel like I just need to be there.”

 “I really believe in the power of journalism and it being the fourth estate; that it holds officials accountable and keeps people honest when you ask hard questions.” 

Jannol credits Shalhevet with preparing her to spread her wings. 

“It’s a very loving and supportive community,” she said. “I’ve had close relationships with teachers. I’ve had a lot of mentors, one of them being Mrs. [Joelle] Keene. I’ve learned everything from [Associated Press] style, reporting techniques, just general life skills.”

Jannol also praised Shalhevet’s weekly Town Hall, where the student-body president leads discussion.

“It’s just a really great exercise in critical thinking and listening and conversation,” Jannol said.  “I think I’ll take a lot of the skills [with me] so I can have in-depth conversations and think critically beyond the walls of high school.”

When not working on news articles, Jannol has written one-act plays for the school’s drama department, and she enjoys writing fiction. She also likes volunteering at a nonprofit thrift store in Santa Monica, bike riding, doing anything at the beach and hanging out with friends.

But writing is her passion.

“I definitely think I can impact the world most through writing,” she said. “I really believe in the power of journalism and it being the fourth estate — that it holds officials accountable and keeps people honest when you ask hard questions.”

Guided by Strong Jewish Values

Frederick Cushnir, 18
High School: Hamilton High School
Going to: Brown University

Participating in Jewish life is in Freddy Cushnir’s blood. The Hamilton High School senior is the son of Andrew Cushnir, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and Sharon Spira-Cushnir, the executive director and chief operating officer at Stephen Wise Temple. 

“We’re definitely a very Jewish family,” Cushnir said in a phone interview. “We do Shabbat every Friday night, we keep kosher. Tzedakah, helping other people — we try live by Jewish values as much as we can and treat others the way we want to be treated.”

Cushnir is the president of the Hamilton chapter of the Jewish Student Union, run by the Orthodox Union. The organization attempts to bring Jewish culture to public schools across the U.S.

Cushnir said having a more centrist political viewpoint at his school is challenging, particularly at a time when most students his age are liberal.

“I am center-left, which, in today’s world, living in West L.A., means I am slightly to the right of people, even though I consider myself liberal,” he said.

Cushnir is involved with AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that is widely considered conservative, but when he has visited Israel he has taken the time to interact with Eritrean refugees, Palestinian teenagers and Israeli kids with social issues living on a farm.

“I am center-left, which, living in West L.A., means I am slightly to the right of people, even though I consider myself liberal.”

Aside from his Jewish-engagement work, Cushnir, who is his school’s valedictorian, has made gun-control advocacy and public policy part of his high school years. He is the founding president of Hamilton’s Brady Teen Anti-Gun Violence Club, and he participated for four years in the YMCA California Youth & Government program, which he said taught him the invaluable skill of public speaking. He recently gave a two-minute address on health care in front of 3,000 of his peers in the program.

“In my speech, I talked about health care and how the prices are way too high and there should be controls on them,” he said.

Recently, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament while playing on Hamilton’s varsity basketball team. The incident provided him with a greater appreciation for having health insurance. 

“If we didn’t have insurance, I wouldn’t have been able to get physical therapy and get better and be healthy again,” he said. “[President Donald Trump] trying to take it away from people who can’t afford it — I think it’s terrible.”

At Brown University, Cushnir hopes to study economics and maybe politics, which he said is the “best way to improve people’s lives on a big scale. The same with economics,” he added, “it governs the way everything works, so going into political economics is a great way to change peoples lives at the base level.”

Before he begins college, Cushnir plans to be a counselor at Camp Alonim, marking his 11th summer at the Simi Valley camp.

“I love working with kids,” he said. “It is so rewarding seeing how happy you can make them, becoming so close to them. I look forward to it every year. Being a counselor and giving kids experiences I had is something I am excited for.”

Seminary, Pre-Med and Branching Out on Her Own

Atara Bayever, 18
High School: Valley Torah High School
Going to: UCLA

Atara Bayever is almost ready to take on the world. 

“I think I may be half-prepared [for this next phase],” Bayever said in a phone interview. “Since I have a lot of responsibilities in school and with extra curriculars, I’ve been doing a lot of that growing up over this past year.”

Before the soon-to-be Valley Torah High School graduate begins her college experience at UCLA, where she plans to take pre-med courses, Bayever will spend a year studying at Darchei Binah seminary in Jerusalem. 

“I’m really excited to be on my own for the first time and explore what that means,” she said. “I’m really excited to just branch out, have new experiences and get in touch with who I am in a different setting than I am used to, and see where that takes me.”

Bayever said it was important for her to take a gap year for her personal development and spiritual growth “before I go out to the secular world and find my place there.” 

At Valley Torah, Bayever undertook a dual curriculum of honors classes in both Judaic and secular studies. During high school she found her love for medicine. 

 “I starting thinking about how I could use my interests to help people,” she said. “Also, [science is] something that challenges me, and there’s so much knowledge there that I wanted to explore, so I thought that would be a good opportunity for that.”

Bayever said she plans to make a difference, one person at a time.

“I’m really excited to just branch out, have new experiences and get in touch with who I am in a different setting than I am used to, and see where that takes me.”

“The best impact you can make is when you really connect with people,” she said. “Either as a practicing doctor or if I go into research, whichever one I decide, I want to be able to connect with people and how I can help each person specifically.”

Bayever has been honing those skills as part of her volunteer work at Kaiser Permanente Hospital. “I really got to see how a hospital works,” she said, “and it was an amazing experience. I really want to be a part of that.”

This summer, Bayever will be working as a camp counselor — as she has over the past two summers — at Camp Gan Israel and Camp Shamayim, both of which are in the San Fernando Valley.

When not studying or volunteering, Bayever plays guitar and enjoys photography. She also hopes to continue her love of painting while in the seminary and plans to take art classes in college. 

Bayever said Valley Torah instilled in her a love for Judaism.

“I think that’s really important to take with me,” she said, “because I’m going to a pretty secular college and it’s really going to be up to me, after seminary, how involved I want to be in Judaism. I think Valley Torah gave me that desire to stay connected.”

Blending Arts and Service

Clara Pitt, 17
High School: Milken Community Schools
Going To: Vassar College

She’s the salutatorian for the Milken Class of 2018, but academic achievement is just one aspect of Clara Pitt’s many accomplishments. Active in student government and service organizations, she has helped plan the school’s Service Learning Fair, is active in the education movement Girls Learn International, and is on the planning committee for Milken’s AIDS Walk team. A talented dancer, she’s team captain for the Los Angeles Israeli Dance Company, and she is a teacher’s aide for Temple Isaiah’s pre-K Sunday school class.

“Giving back has always been really important to me,” Pitt said in a phone interview. “It’s something my parents and grandparents are very enthusiastic about. I grew up watching them do community service, and was so inspired by their ability to give back that I wanted to do the same. I think it’s the greatest work we can do in our lives. My parents never pushed me in school, just encouraged me to do my best.”

An ardent traveler, Pitt attended Camp Svarvas, an international Jewish camp in Hungary, and has been to Israel three times, most recently in April for the March of the Living. She went twice in 2016, first with a Stephen S. Wise Temple three-way summer exchange program and stayed with families in Tel Aviv and Vilnius, Lithuania. She returned a few months later, on a Temple Isaiah group tour. “We had an Israeli tour guide and a Palestinian tour guide to learn about both sides of the conflict,” she said.

“I’m always amazed by how rich and vibrant the culture is,” Pitt said of Israel. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything the state of Israel does, but I feel blessed that the Jewish people have a state, and hope that one day in the future we’ll be able to live peacefully there.”

“I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with my understanding of everything. I’ll take any opportunity to travel and learn about another culture.”

Pitt, who received her Jewish education at Temple Isaiah, where she had her bat mitzvah, and has attended Milken since middle school, said she “became a lot more in touch with my Jewish identity and Jewish heritage” after transferring there from a secular elementary school. “I was studying a lot more in-depth than before, and through exchange programs I’ve been able to meet Jewish people from around the world. That has motivated me to learn more about Judaism and stay connected with it. It’s really a large part of my life,” she said.  

“I see how much my ancestors struggled to be Jewish,” she said, noting that her grandmothers fled Eastern Europe before World War II. “One became a schoolteacher and the other a librarian. Their willingness and passion for giving back to the community really inspired me.”

Heading to Vassar College this fall, Pitt has “a long list of things I want to study: cognitive science, journalism, art history, anthropology, maybe chemistry,” she said. “My ideal job would be a photojournalist.” 

Her summer plans include doing fun things around L.A. and taking a trip with her brother Benjamin, a recent New York University graduate. “It’s one of my goals to help people wherever I go and learn and experience as much as I can. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with my understanding of everything. I’ll take any opportunity to travel and learn about another culture.” n

A Passion for Talmud and Sports

Eli Isaacs, 17
High School: YULA Boys High School
Going to: Yeshiva University

Eli Isaacs has plans to go into medicine because “I’ve always wanted to help people,” but he’s also fascinated by how medicine relates to Jewish law. It’s why he’s happy to put his plans to attend Yeshiva University in New York on hold for a year, or possibly two, so that he can spend time in Israel studying at yeshiva.

At the end of this summer, Isaacs will head to Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Ashdod. Despite the fact the area has been a target of rockets from Gaza, Isaacs is not worried. “I feel very safe in Israel,” he said. “I’ve been there multiple times, and when I’m learning in yeshiva, I feel like HaShem is protecting me.”

Isaacs’ passion for Torah learning is evident at school, too, where he has voluntarily taken on an additional three Talmud classes. “I see that there are people who want to learn Talmud all day, and they have an immense love for it and seem like they live happier lives. I want to emulate that,” he said. He added that he’s also inspired by how his father studies Talmud every night after a busy day at work.

He also is impressed with his father’s work as the owner of Garden of Palms, a Jewish assisted living facility, where Isaacs has spent time volunteering. Isaacs, who lives in Pico-Robertson, has walked with his father and brother (who also works there) all the way to the facility in West Hollywood on Shabbat, “so we can daven with them and sing songs with them.” When he’s at his own shul, Beth Jacob in Pico-Robertson, he’s the gabbai there. 

At YULA Boys High School, his teachers and rabbis have designated him an ambassador for prospective students “because they believe I represent the school well” in taking advantage of everything the school has to offer, being involved and getting consistently good grades. “They feel I have extra insight to share,” he said. 

“I’ve learned that it’s important to be there for other people, and to try to better myself as a person and as a Jew.” 

Isaacs is also a huge sports enthusiast, having played on YULA’s varsity basketball and volleyball teams, serving as captain of the basketball team in both his junior and senior seasons. He also has six older siblings. “They’re all competitive and sporty, so I’m always trying to beat them.”

Before heading off to yeshiva in Israel in August, Isaacs will spend the summer in New York at Camp Kaylie in the Catskills as a member of the sports staff, where he’ll be both teaching sports “and hopefully having time to play, too,” he said. In addition, he said the camp has a Jewish studies learning program in the mornings and evenings that he’d like to take advantage of.

Isaacs said that his years at YULA have taught him how to manage his time and to be grateful for all opportunities. “YULA really pushes [the notion of] brotherhood,” he said, “and I’ve learned that it’s important to be there for other people, and to try to better myself as a person and as a Jew.”

Excited for Environmental Opportunities

Aaron Saliman, 18
High School: Milken Community Schools
Going to: UC Berkeley

When Aaron Saliman heads to UC Berkeley this fall, he’ll be coming full circle. Born in San Francisco, his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 4.

“I’m really excited to go to Berkeley, partially because it’s an entirely huge change of pace from small, private Jewish schools in Los Angeles, but also because of what I’m going to be studying,” said Saliman in a phone interview. He plans to study environmental economics and policy.

Saliman considers himself an environmentalist and an activist, and he is thrilled to be able to explore his interests academically.

“A lot of the time when I tell people the major I want to go into, they’re like, “So you really want to change the world?” And I’m like, “Yes, of course I want to move our world to a more sustainable path.”  

Saliman said he hopes to eventually join an organization such as the National Resources Defense Council or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He would like to “help institute policy or analyze the economy or something that will help us get a better understanding of global climate change, and then help us combat it.”

Saliman, who said he wanted to be a creative writing major “for the longest time,” has earned three national and four regional gold medals from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. He attended the Iowa Young Writers Workshop in summer 2016, the Kenyon Review Young Writers summer program in 2017, and two sessions of the four-week California State Summer School for the Arts in 2016 and 2017. He was also named one of Ventura Boulevard magazine’s Top Teens: 10 to Watch.

“Writing is my biggest passion,” he said. However, his practical side tells him he needs to do more to “support a family, make money and survive. So I will be continuing creative writing for fun and for my own personal fulfillment.” 

He also plans to continue his passion for playing guitar, which he has been doing for the past six years. 

“ ‘So you really want to change the world?’ ” people ask me. And I’m like, ‘Yes, of course
I want to move our world to a more sustainable path.’ ”  

This summer, Saliman plans to teach creative writing to children and also focus on enjoying his time at home, getting the most out of Los Angeles, his friends and family before heading off to school.

Spending his summer this way also dovetails with his philosophy of being around people who are genuinely kind to one another. 

 “I wish there was more of a stress in our society and in ourselves to just be nice people,” he said. “It’s a really cliché thing, but it’s been one of my biggest beliefs lately.”

These are important beliefs to hold onto, he said, because, “It’s very easy to get lost when you’re talking about things like climate change and these big ideas of writing and music. Everything I take part in [involves] big nebulous ideas, and it’s easy to lose the individual. I think by maintaining empathy and basic human kindness it will help us on all levels of human development.” n

“I’m really excited to go to Berkeley, partially because it’s an entirely huge change of pace from small, private Jewish schools in Los Angeles, but also because of what I’m going to be studying,” said Saliman in a phone interview. He plans to study environmental economics and policy.

Saliman considers himself an environmentalist and an activist, and he is thrilled to be able to explore his interests academically.

“A lot of the time when I tell people the major I want to go into, they’re like, “So you really want to change the world?” And I’m like, “Yes, of course I want to move our world to a more sustainable path.”  

Saliman said he hopes to eventually join an organization such as the National Resources Defense Council or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He would like to “help institute policy or analyze the economy or something that will help us get a better understanding of global climate change, and then help us combat it.”

Saliman, who said he wanted to be a creative writing major “for the longest time,” has earned three national and four regional gold medals from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. He attended the Iowa Young Writers Workshop in summer 2016, the Kenyon Review Young Writers summer program in 2017, and two sessions of the four-week California State Summer School for the Arts in 2016 and 2017. He was also named one of Ventura Boulevard magazine’s Top Teens: 10 to Watch.

“Writing is my biggest passion,” he said. However, his practical side tells him he needs to do more to “support a family, make money and survive. So I will be continuing creative writing for fun and for my own personal fulfillment.” 

He also plans to continue his passion for playing guitar, which he has been doing for the past six years. 

This summer, Saliman plans to teach creative writing to children and also focus on enjoying his time at home, getting the most out of Los Angeles, his friends and family before heading off to school.

Spending his summer this way also dovetails with his philosophy of being around people who are genuinely kind to one another. 

 “I wish there was more of a stress in our society and in ourselves to just be nice people,” he said. “It’s a really cliché thing, but it’s been one of my biggest beliefs lately.”

These are important beliefs to hold onto, he said, because, “It’s very easy to get lost when you’re talking about things like climate change and these big ideas of writing and music. Everything I take part in [involves] big nebulous ideas, and it’s easy to lose the individual. I think by maintaining empathy and basic human kindness it will help us on all levels of human development.”

A Future in Service and Medicine

Abegail Javidzad,17
High School: YULA Girls High School
GOING TO: USC

Abegail Javidzad wants to become a dermatologist and to give back to the world. The daughter of Iranian-American immigrants, Javidzad has excelled in the sciences and has immersed herself in charity work at YULA Girls High School.

“I’ve always had a love for the sciences and medicine, especially when I studied science in ninth grade with Mrs. [Sandy] Waleko,” Javidzad said. “She taught in a clear way that solidified my love for science and helped make it clear that medicine was the right field for me.” 

Javidzad, who will be graduating as salutatorian of her class, will be a pre-med student at USC this fall. 

“I’m really into skin care,” she said. “Whenever my friends have a skin issue, they ask me, ‘Oh, Abby, what do I do for acne scars?’ I like doing research into that field of medicine. And I think skin care is really important.”

Outside of the classroom, Javidzad volunteered at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and United Care Family Medical Center, where she shadowed doctors and took vital signs. 

“Since I was volunteering in patient transport [at UCLA], I saw every single department,” Javidzad said. “At United Care, I got to see what it was like to work with family medicine in a private practice and be one on one with patients.”

She enjoyed her time at the hospital and health care center, she said, because “I was the first face [the patients] saw. I learned a lot of things from the doctor. He said you should always sit down when you come into the room because it makes patients feel more comfortable. Patient interaction is one of the most important things because it’s how you get the patient to trust you.”

“Mrs. Waleko taught in a clear way that solidified my love for science and helped make it clear that medicine was the right field for me.”

Javidzad’s compassion and care for people is also evident in her other volunteer work. She founded and is the current president of Clothes for Care, where she collects clothes from her classmates and takes them to the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles. So far, she has coordinated more than 500 donations. 

“It’s important to give back,” she said, “and this is such a simple thing that anyone can do.”

In Javidzad’s spare time, she served as editor-in-chief for three years of The Panther Post, YULA High Schools’ newspaper, and served on the board of the YULA Israel Advocacy Club. 

In the fall, she will be attending USC on a presidential scholarship, a half-tuition award, and will be part of the Trojan Scholars Society, the organization for students with academic scholarships. She plans to continue learning about the intersection of science and medicine. 

“I really want to help others and combine that with science,” Javidzad said. “The best way to do that is [through] medicine.”

A Future in Biomedical Engineering

Jacob Feitelberg, 18
High School: Shalhevet High School
Going to: Johns Hopkins University

Jacob Feitelberg has been incredibly busy for the past four years at Shalhevet High School. He studied hard, earning a National Merit Commended Student award, was one of the founders of the school’s robotics team, served as editor-in-chief of The Boiling Point school newspaper, played the violin in the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra and sang in the Shalhevet Choirhawks. 

But what Feitelberg has enjoyed the most, and what he hopes to devote his life to, is biomedical engineering, which he will study this fall at Johns Hopkins University. 

“I just want to help people live longer,” Feitelberg said, in a phone interview with the Journal. 

Feitelberg plans to pursue tissue engineering, which involves replacing or mending damaged tissue and organs with those created in a lab. 

“Your organs fail when you get cancer and disease, or just when you become older,” Feitelberg said. “Using a healthy organ to replace it is going to be a lot better for you. There are so many people waiting for donor organs, and there is no real clear way to get these organs other than someone dying in a car accident and happening to be a donor. Theoretically, if you could get [new organs] from your same cells, it’d be a lot better.”

“My family doesn’t come from a science background so I had to push to find it where I could.”

This past summer, Feitelberg participated in a bio lab program for high school students called Pathways to Stem Cell Science at UCLA. He spent eight weeks working on a small device that expands and contracts based on its temperature. Although it’s currently being used for purely research purposes, the device attempts to mimic how the lungs also expand and contract. 

Looking back on his experience in the bio lab, Feitelberg said, “It was one of the best summers I ever had.”

Though Feitelberg also is interested in the arts — he’s been playing violin since he was 8 and sang in the Choirhawks in 10th and 11th grade — both took a backseat this year because he was co-captain of the robotics team and editing The Boiling Point. While at the paper, he won a National Quill & Scroll Award, as well as a 2017 first prize in News & Feature Writing on Current Events Involving Israel award from the Jewish Scholastic Press Association, for his Shimon Peres obituary.  

Feitelberg is excited to go to Hopkins next year, where he will take some music theory classes, but mostly will focus on his biomedical research. “I’m looking forward to having a lot more opportunities for research, which is what I want to do. My family doesn’t come from a science background so I had to push to find it where I could. I’m going to get to pursue what I want, and I hope to help many people.”

Academically Driven, Musically Passionate

Gidon Amsellem, 17
High School: YULA Boys High School
Going to: Cornell University

Whether he’s taking five advanced-placement classes or playing in the Jazz Ensemble, YULA senior Gidon Amsellem is a straight-A student to be reckoned with. Academically driven, artistically passionate  and Jewishly committed, Amsellem sees a future in which he’s able to help people as a Jewish leader and, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, as a doctor.

“My mother’s father was a general surgeon and a great man,” Amsellem said in a phone interview. He explained that his grandfather — who died three years ago —  had come to the United States from Iran to do a medical residency and stayed.  “He had a great impact on my family. He paid for my Jewish education, and as a doctor, provided free practice for people who didn’t have insurance. He was also supportive of charities.”

Amsellem’s family is Moroccan on his father’s side and Iranian on his mother’s side. He’s involved in the Sephardic minyan at YULA, where he also served as gabbai, an experience that moved him spiritually and gave him a mandate for his future commitment to Judaism. 

“It’s a responsibility that brings me closer to God, to know I can help other people to do [Jewish things]. If the Hillel needs help, I want to be there, especially for the Sephardic community.”  

Music has “always been my main thing,” Amsellem said, since he started playing in ninth grade. “I picked up the clarinet and started playing. I wasn’t good. I got better.” After the Jazz Ensemble’s saxophone players graduated, Amsellem “got myself a sax and started playing — that’s been my main instrument from then on.” He is also a vocalist and also plays EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). He recently performed at YULA’s Open House, and does charity gigs. Leaving the ensemble has been emotional, he said. “It’s the end of something I’ve put a lot of work into.” 

“BIMA Arts Program (at Brandeis University) really opened me up as a musician and as a person. Almost all of the participants were Jewish, with not too many Orthodox people, but all found Judaism interesting.”

He especially noted the impact of the BIMA Arts Program at Brandeis University, which he attended for three summers while at YULA. BIMA brings together arts faculty members and peer musicians for artistic discovery and Jewish experiences. Each summer gave him the opportunity to focus on music/theater/vocal music or sculpture, as well as on biblical texts. 

“BIMA really opened me up as a musician and as a person,” Amsellem said. “Almost all of the participants were Jewish, with not too many Orthodox people, but all found Judaism interesting. You’d see other people’s interpretations of the text in their art and it helped you visualize what that understanding of the text was. It developed me to be loving of all other Jews and all other people no matter where they came from.” 

Amsellem plans to spend a pre-college year at Yeshivat Orayta in the Old City of Jerusalem before heading to Cornell to start his pre-med studies. Although he’s not on track for a career in music, he knows that the future is still unwritten. 

“I’ll definitely keep playing music for the rest of my life,” he said. He can even see the possibility that he might do it semi-professionally, performing at bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings.

“Everything’s a possibility,” he said.

Pursuing Her Passions: Teaching and Judaism

Rena Perl, 17
High School: Harkham-Gaon Academy
Going to: Cal State Northridge

If Rena Perl ever decides to abandon her dream of becoming a teacher and pursue politics, she may have the attitude for it.

“If there is something I have learned throughout my life, it is nothing is black and white,” Perl said in a phone interview. “It bothers me people are so adamant about their opinions that it prevents things from getting done. It divides us more than is necessary.”

Perl, the valedictorian at Harkham-GAON Academy, is Orthodox but she has cultivated unorthodox experiences. She has never visited Israel but she is not planning to enroll in a seminary or sign up for Birthright. After middle school, she looked beyond the local major Orthodox day schools when selecting a high school.

She opted for a Jewish day school that offers blended and online learning that allows students to undertake courses for college credit at Santa Monica College (SMC) as part of a dual-enrollment program. 

Perl is graduating from Harkham after only three years, and she already has taken courses at SMC in philosophy, biology, art history and child development. She has developed an interest in artist Edgar Degas, a French impressionist known for his paintings of ballerinas. 

Perl is something of an amateur ballerina herself. “People tend to tell me I am quite graceful,” she said. “I think I have a natural propensity for it. Dance is used for celebration for a reason, so I think it is quite fun.

This summer and fall, when she is not at a ballet class, Perl will continue to take classes at SMC. She plans to transfer to Cal State Northridge in spring 2019 to pursue a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential. Eager to start her career as a teacher, she already has taken the California Basic Educational Skills Test.

“I’ve always been passionate about becoming a teacher,” she said. “I’ve always loved kids. I feel like I definitely have the talent for it. I’ve been tutoring a long time and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” 

At Harkham, she has taken part in the Yeshiva University National Model United Nations program. She represented Yemen, Sierra Leone and Qatar, respectively, in ninth, 10th and 11th grades.

The Model U.N. program, she said, has heightened her interest in world affairs. Particularly valuable was meeting with the permanent mission to Sierra Leone while in New York.

“What I really liked is we talked about issues and had intelligent conversations, and they liked what we were saying,” she said. “Just kind of helping people is something that I think definitely calls to me. I learned that from Model U.N.”

Perl also recently volunteered to become an advocate for the Borgen Project, an organization that combats global poverty. This summer, she will work as a counselor at JCamp, which is run out of the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Children, along with Judaism, are her greatest passions. 

“I feel Judaism really adds something special that satisfies your soul,” she said. “And if you don’t have it, there will be something lacking.”

abandon her dream of becoming a teacher and pursue politics, she may have the attitude for it.

“If there is something I have learned throughout my life, it is nothing is black and white,” Perl said in a phone interview. “It bothers me people are so adamant about their opinions that it prevents things from getting done. It divides us more than is necessary.”

Perl, the valedictorian at Harkham-GAON Academy, is Orthodox but she has cultivated unorthodox experiences. She has never visited Israel but she is not planning to enroll in a seminary or sign up for Birthright. After middle school, she looked beyond the local major Orthodox day schools when selecting a high school.

She opted for a Jewish day school that offers blended and online learning that allows students to undertake courses for college credit at Santa Monica College (SMC) as part of a dual-enrollment program. 

“If there is something I have learned throughout my life, it is nothing is black and white.”

Perl is graduating from Harkham after only three years, and she already has taken courses at SMC in philosophy, biology, art history and child development. She has developed an interest in artist Edgar Degas, a French impressionist known for his paintings of ballerinas. 

Perl is something of an amateur ballerina herself. “People tend to tell me I am quite graceful,” she said. “I think I have a natural propensity for it. Dance is used for celebration for a reason, so I think it is quite fun.

This summer and fall, when she is not at a ballet class, Perl will continue to take classes at SMC. She plans to transfer to Cal State Northridge in spring 2019 to pursue a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential. Eager to start her career as a teacher, she already has taken the California Basic Educational Skills Test.

“I’ve always been passionate about becoming a teacher,” she said. “I’ve always loved kids. I feel like I definitely have the talent for it. I’ve been tutoring a long time and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.” 

At Harkham, she has taken part in the Yeshiva University National Model United Nations program. She represented Yemen, Sierra Leone and Qatar, respectively, in ninth, 10th and 11th grades.

The Model U.N. program, she said, has heightened her interest in world affairs. Particularly valuable was meeting with the permanent mission to Sierra Leone while in New York.

“What I really liked is we talked about issues and had intelligent conversations, and they liked what we were saying,” she said. “Just kind of helping people is something that I think definitely calls to me. I learned that from Model U.N.”

Perl also recently volunteered to become an advocate for the Borgen Project, an organization that combats global poverty. This summer, she will work as a counselor at JCamp, which is run out of the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Children, along with Judaism, are her greatest passions. 

“I feel Judaism really adds something special that satisfies your soul,” she said. “And if you don’t have it, there will be something lacking.”

Overcoming Obstacles, Looking to the Future

140912_New_Roads_MS_US

OLIVER LEE, 18
HIGH SCHOOL: New Roads School
GOING TO: California Lutheran University

Between visiting patients at CedarsSinai Medical Center and making lunches for the homeless, high school senior Oliver Lee has gained perspective beyond his 18 years. “[Volunteering] gives me a sense of purpose,” he said.

His life experiences, too, have informed his wisdom. Lee was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that causes the brain to swell due to the accumulation of fluid. He also has a life-threatening allergy to latex. And when he was in middle school, bullies threw a book at him. The book caught the corner of his eye, dislodged the muscle and eventually caused diplopia (double vision). Lee changed schools. 

These experiences, he said, have motivated him to give back. They also have pushed him to pursue a career in medicine. This fall, he plans to study biology with an emphasis in pre-medicine at California Lutheran University.

“I’ve always had an interest in the human body, anatomy, biology, and I guess the fact that I’ve had over 30 surgeries has played a major role in why I want to get into medicine,” he said.

As an only child, Lee is close to his parents. His father is an architect and his mother is a graphic designer. He is proud of his Jewish heritage. His mother’s last name is Spitalny, which is Polish for “of the hospital.” Lee’s ancestors were doctors who fled Poland and Russia during the Russo-Japanese War. His grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather consecrated Congregation Beth Israel, the first synagogue in Phoenix.

“I guess the fact that I’ve had over 30 surgeries has played a major role in why I want to get into medicine.”

“I see Judaism not just as a religion but more so a sense of community and a sense of people, friends and family, who can come together and talk about their struggles and bonds based on history and tradition and be together,” he said. “That’s what Judaism is for me.”

Lee juggles his interests with a passion for the arts. Prism eyeglasses have corrected his double vision, and he has honed his photography skills, capturing textured objects in nature and experimenting with the color and monochromatic settings on his SLR camera. 

No Instagram filters for this budding artist.

In his free time, Lee enjoys mountain biking with his father. He’s also found an outlet in improvisational comedy and has taken several improv-comedy classes at The Groundlings in West Hollywood.

“Not that I intend to be on television or be in the movies, but that’s a space for me to play with my emotions and express myself,” he said.

Ultimately, the future M.D.’s M.O. is overcoming that which is beyond his control, whether bullying or a latex allergy, to live his best life.

“I don’t let that personally define me as a person. I am Oliver Lee,” he said. “I’m not Oliver Lee with this and this and this who was bullied.”

A Passion for the Sciences and the Humanities

Benjamin Levy, 17
High School: Valley Torah High School
Going to: Harvard University

Remember the name Benjamin Levy, because at some point in the not too distant future, there’s a good chance he will be at the forefront of some major scientific breakthrough.

With a maturity that belies his 17 years, Levy, who will graduate as valedictorian from Valley Torah, already has spent the past four summers as a computational biology intern at the City of Hope. He has worked with experts in the field to design novel cancer drugs by utilizing a mechanistic understanding of cancer-associated protein dynamics. He has co-authored two publications on the project results in cancer research, he has worked on Type 1 diabetes and has worked on the structural deviation between two superimposed proteins in conjunction with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, based on the Mars Rover software.

“My goal is to ultimately work in the pharmaceutical industry in the new paradigm of drug development,” Levy said in a phone interview. “My passion is biophysics, which started with an interest in physics.” That interest began with reading books by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. 

Levy will attend Harvard and study computer science after spending a gap year at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, and this summer he will be working as a software development intern at Google. “That was really competitive to get into,” he said, “and I’m really excited about it.”

“I think it’s very important to have a grounding in the liberal arts.”

However, lest you think that Levy is just a science geek, he’s not. “I’ve never considered myself either a STEM person or a humanities person,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in both. I want to help design the drugs of the future and, in doing so, I think it’s very important to have a grounding in the liberal arts from philosophy to literature to history. I don’t think you can have an impact on society if you don’t have an understanding of society,” he said.

At school, he founded and became president of the Tutoring Club, and also founded the school’s Debate Club. “I put in an inconceivable amount of work into that club, and I’m really proud of it,” he said. “The reason I’m interested in debate is the same reason I’m interested in computer science,” he added. “I like thinking about it as the manipulation of information.”

Levy also enjoys karate, which he’s been studying since he was 5 years old, and has taught karate to special needs kids. “It’s the entire mindset that I love,” he said. “It’s really meditative and helps me clear my mind in every aspect of my life.”

For now, Levy is busy writing his valedictory speech, which he says will focus on the passions everyone has at Valley Torah. “It’s amazing to me how everyone at [school] has a passion and they’re willing to put their energy and effort into that passion,” he said.  “When you’re in an environment where you want to do something important with your life, and you’re not just sitting around and playing video games, you learn a lot from that.”

Her Life Will Be Like a Banquet

Gabriella Resnick, 18
HIGH School: de Toledo High School
Going to: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

During the second half of her freshman year at de Toledo High School, Gabriella Resnick spent nearly as much time in doctor’s offices as she did in classrooms. After years of eating everything, most food began to bring on stomach cramps, not sustenance. 

Tests came up negative and despite a slew of diets and medications, nothing worked. Then, last November while on vacation in the Bahamas with her family, she fell violently ill and went into a tailspin. 

“I remember being in my bed, not wanting to get out of bed, but thinking, I can’t do that again,” she said in a phone interview. “I can’t be that upset again. I need to be putting my energy into something.”

Cooking became her salvation. She found unbridled joy in experimenting with healthy recipes and documenting the journey on her website — The Involuntary Vegan. “I didn’t choose the vegan life, the vegan life chose me,” her bio reads.  

“Regardless of whether or not it helped anyone, I needed to put my energy into something I was passionate about and I hoped people would see that passion and come with me on that journey,” she said. 

Sure enough, classmates and even teachers came along for the ride. Many complimented her on the honesty in her site’s personal essay titled “My Wellness Journey,” in which Resnick confessed to feelings of isolation caused by her food intolerances. In it, food, being communal and unifying for so many, she reasoned, could also be exclusionary. 

“I didn’t choose the vegan life,

the vegan life chose me.”

Classmates and teachers dealing with self-diagnosed food intolerances now regularly reach out to Resnick. She has shared gluten-free lunches with teachers and received many heartfelt thanks from classmates and students’ parents who’ve tried her recipes at home. She’s had countless conversations with classmates to dispel stigmas about healthy food being tasteless. In some cases, she’s made believers out of people who don’t have allergies and simply use her recipes because they enjoy the dishes. 

Resnick has even taken the mission outside de Toledo’s walls. For her Senior Capstone Internship, Resnick spent six weeks working for Culinary Kids Academy, a Los Angeles-based company that combines an educational curriculum with experiential cooking classes. 

She also maintains a regular column in the school newspaper on healthy eating and serves as a volunteer peer mentor to members of the de Toledo freshman class. The totality of Resnick’s impact on campus — and in the kitchens of classmates and faculty — garnered her a spot as one of her school’s peer-selected graduation speakers. 

“That distinction meant the world to me,” she said of the honor. “I value honesty and in my writing, I try to display that.” 

In the fall, Resnick will attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as a nutrition major, and hopes that her wellness journey continues to inspire. 

“Hopefully, once I have the education to couple with everything I’m putting out into the world, my work will continue to gain traction, attract attention and spiral into something,” she said. “I’m also passionate about the psychology of eating. Food is just a big part of my life and I think it will always be a big part of my life, regardless of what I do.” n