A group of Yeshiva University students is making a big difference in the lives of Israeli children this summer.
JERUSALEM — Most schools are veritable ghost towns during the summer months. But in the halls of four high schools in the Israeli development towns of Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, Arad and Dimona, the sounds of learning, life and laughter can still be heard this season.
For five weeks this summer, 27 students from Yeshiva University have come to Israel to run four summer camps for approximately 300 teenagers, many of whom are underprivileged and at-risk. The Counterpoint camps, all located in southern Israel, each run for 12 days and offer campers a chance to work on their English as they enjoy regular camp activities like sports, arts and crafts, drumming and cooking. In addition, campers learn about issues relevant to them, such as Internet safety, and time and money management, all while studying Jewish history and heritage, culture and Diaspora relations. Camp-wide color wars offer a chance to show off their competitive edge and field trips take them to parts of the country they’ve never seen before — including the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
But most importantly, say organizers, camp gives these eighth- to tenth-graders structure that would otherwise be missing from their summer. In Israel, camps for teenagers are in short supply, and when there are camps available, many families are not able to afford them. At the Counterpoint camps, though, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services picks up the tab for underprivileged families. And whereas typical high school classes have up to 35 students, at these four summer camps, there are three counselors for every eight to 10 campers.
YU student Gabriella Stein, 21, from Bala Cynwyd, who is studying communications and education, came on the program because she loves teaching and hopes to go into social work. Just days into the program, she said, “I feel we’ve already made a difference. We’re already friends with these kids, we’re already connected to them.”
Before camp began, the YU students had a week-long orientation to prepare them for camp and to teach them the skills they would need to succeed. Orientation included presentations by Counterpoint counselors from previous summers.
Even though it’s summer, the kids seem to be enjoying some classroom sessions that can last more than an hour.
“I thought camp was going to beboring,” one camper began. “I came the first day to see if it was fun, and I thought I would leave early. But it was fun, so I came every day!”
“Every summer, Counterpoint campers find new levels of confidence through the expansion of their English vocabularies; the acquisition of knowledge and skills leaves the campers with a heightened sense of accomplishment,” said Kiva Rabinsky, director of Counterpoint Israel. “Additionally, dialoguing with their American counsellors, who are religious Jews, and taking part in Jewish heritage programming results in the exploration of their personal and Jewish identity — exciting growth of a different kind.
“Our hope,” added Rabinsky, “is that our multifaceted and innovative Counterpoint programming will improve the skills of the Israeli teens while helping them develop a positive self-image and a strong connection with traditional Jewish values and their own Jewish identities.”
Each camper who participates in Counterpoint enters with a clean slate; counselors are not told anything about who has a troubled background and who doesn’t, so all the teens start out on even footing. They show up to camp for a 9:30 a.m. start time and stay to hang out with their counselors past 2:45 p.m., when camp is dismissed. Over the 12 days, the campers form bonds with their counselors and develop a sense of empowerment and self-worth.
Though some campers and counselors lose touch after the 12-day experience, others forge connections that last long after the summer is over. “You’re Superman,” exclaimed a boy named Bar to 20-year-old YU student Elan Rotenberg, of Baltimore. “No, I’m just Elan,” his counselor answered. Not letting go of his assertion, Bar insisted, “Well, you’re Superman to me.”
Benji Shedlo, 20, of Silver Spring, Md., said that it’s not only the campers who are learning and getting a lot out of this experience. He told a story that to him epitomizes his time here. On a field trip to Jerusalem, the campers were approached on the street by a homeless man begging for change. Despite their own meager resources, the campers dug into their pockets to give the man any change they could spare. They also offered him a bottle of water.
“The potential these kids have is really impressive,” said Shedlo.
One of the markers of success for the program, said Rabinsky, is seeing YU participants get involved in their communities in the future.
According to Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the university’s vice president for university and community life, many leaders of Jewish communities in North America and Israel are products of Counterpoint. Brander himself is a past head advisor of Counterpoint Canada.
Shedlo said that his experience this summer has been eye-opening.
“I came on Counterpoint because I wanted to give back to Israel,” he explained. “It’s like, rather than giving these kids fish so they can live for a day, we are teaching them to fish, which is the highest form of charity. We’re helping them become successful and in that way we are helping make Israel a stronger place for the future.”
Netanya Weiss is a freelancer living in Jerusalem.