Lifes a feast for spirited young fellowship winner

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Young artist and musician Hannah Sarvasy stands out even in the rarefied company of other Bronfman scholars.

Sarvasy is one of 26 youths selected by the Samuel Bronfman Foundation for its five-week Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel.

Most participants are between their junior and senior year of high school. Although the Berkeley High School student is one of the youngest members of the group, Sarvasy, 16, is already a senior, and will be entering Harvard in the fall.

Moving a year ahead of her peers is only one of many ways in which Sarvasy has distinguished herself.

When a visitor told Sarvasy's mother, Sheila Sondik, that her daughter sounded "interesting," she chuckled and said, "You put it mildly."

Sarvasy's paintings have been selected for inclusion in numerous juried exhibitions. She helped paint the "Berkeley Bikes" mural in downtown Berkeley. And she won first- and second-place awards for her cartoons in a San Francisco Bay Guardian contest.

This won't be her initial sojourn outside the country: Sarvasy, who is also a cellist, has performed with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra for two years and participated in its 1998 European tour.

For a high school independent study project, she began seeking out elderly Jewish immigrants to learn about their history. She struck gold at a retirement home in Berkeley, where she found one resident who had been the first president of the U.C. Berkeley Hillel, a fact the home's activity director had not even known, Sarvasy said. "It was actually amazing…It was back in the '70s." Sarvasy continues to visit her elderly friend once a week .

So, with everything that she has going on, what does she do in her spare time? She tutors children at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley.

Sarvasy, who has always wanted to go to Israel, attended Kehilla Community Synagogue school and the Berkeley Midrasha. She later returned to Kehilla as an assistant Hebrew teacher. It was at Midrasha that she learned about the Bronfman fellowship.

"I always thought it sounded like a great program and hoped I could do it," she said. "I had to fly down for an interview in L.A. I liked them so much and we had such a great time I came back really uppy."

The participants have been burning up the wires via e-mail since a roster came out two weeks ago.

"There's quite a few very religious, observant Jews, but also Reform Jews from places like Kansas, Iowa, North Carolina and Canada, all places I've never been," she said. "There's one girl whose whole family converted when she was 4. She has seven brothers and sisters and was homeschooled. She just sounds so interesting."

Sarvasy came by her own divergent interests naturally: Sondik is a visual artist and an accountant. Her father, Paul Sarvasy, is a physician who divides his time between the Richmond Health Clinic and the Martinez AIDS Clinic. Sarvasy, her parents and sister Estie, 12, live in Berkeley.

At Harvard, a major in folklore and mythology will draw on Sarvasy's interests in language, literature, art and anthropology.

"I think I want to be a writer when I grow up," she said.

The Bronfman Youth Fellowships program helps develop future community leaders committed to the concept of Jewish unity.

Thirteen female and 13 male students were chosen from 320 applicants. The teens represent a broad spectrum of Jewish backgrounds, from Orthodox to unaffiliated.

The group will first fly to New York City for an orientation, and arrive in Israel Tuesday.

The teens will engage in intensive study and dialogue in Israel with Bronfman program educators, political and literary figures. The American students will also interact with a group of young Israeli peers, who will be spending a week in this country prior to the American contingent's visit.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.