Yeshiva University’s Counterpoint Israel Program kicked off its 12th consecutive year with a communal bar mitzvah ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem for 13 boys from the development town of Kiryat Malachi.
The immersive service-learning program, which ran from July 4 to 24, brought 30 handpicked YU students — including five from Bergen County — to run programs helping 200 underprivileged young Israelis in Arad, Dimona, and Kiryat Malachi shore up their self-esteem as well their English competency and computer literacy.
“Counterpoint Israel serves teens from impoverished homes, and the program has become an educational lifeline for the campers and their families,” said Gabi Sackett, director of the Counterpoint Israel Program. “While many of the young women in the program had celebrated a bat mitzvah over the last year, many of the incoming male campers had skipped over this very important milestone in their lives.”
The bar mitzvah event was organized together with Afikim, an Israeli nonprofit group that works to enrich the lives of families in need in Kiryat Malachi.
“We saw this as an opportunity to connect the campers with their Jewish roots and lay the groundwork for responsible and motivated Jewish adulthood,” Ms. Sackett said. “It was really the perfect way to start the summer, because it put an emphasis on Jewish identity and education.”
Each Counterpoint Israel camp is staffed by 10 Yeshiva University undergraduates who work together as educational teams to mentor the Israeli campers and teach them about Jewish history, heritage, and culture through trips, activities, teambuilding exercises, and English reading and writing. They also lead workshops in arts, fashion, music, dance, and sports.
For the first time in Counterpoint’s history, all the campers received continuing-education credit for their participation from the Israeli Ministry of Education.
Michael Elbaz, 23, of Teaneck and Liat Clark, 20, of Bergenfield were teaching partners in Arad.
“Michael and I were thrown right into the intensity of the program from the beginning,” Ms. Clark said. “On the first day of camp, one of the girls in our English class got a call from her mom that her grandfather had passed away.
“We decided that it would be a nice gesture to make a shiva visit to her family, even though we had just met. The family was touched, and our camper felt so special. The camper was incredibly shy on the first day of camp, but after we visited her she was a different person and she only grew closer to us from then on.
“It has been unbelievable for us to be part of a program where the counselors work well past the 3 p.m. end of camp and go beyond what the expectations of them are on paper,” Ms. Clark added.
Mr. Elbaz said that one of the highlights of the program for him was color war.
“What we thought was a failed attempt at teaching our class a team cheer in English was, much to our surprise, a huge success,” he said. “We only realized after class, at the beginning of our soccer competition, that the campers had been listening all along.
“They gathered around us before the game, putting their arms around our shoulders and yelling with enthusiasm the chant that we had repeated several times in the classroom, falling on what we thought were deaf ears. At that point we realized how engaged the campers had been all this time, and the great effect we had had on them, and the greater effect they had on us.”
The other Bergen County Counterpoint counselors were Rafael and Solomon Anapolle of Teaneck and Jonathan (Yoni) Mintz of Fair Lawn.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander of Teaneck, YU’s vice president for university and community life and the founder of Counterpoint Israel, said the program is intended “to break down the barriers that divide diaspora and Israeli Jewry.”
He added that the program gives select students “opportunities to take their Torah and academic knowledge and engage in service to the Jewish people and humanity,” as well as an opportunity to “realize their inner talents and the potential to make a difference.”
Applicants go through a formal interview process. “We choose young men and women who we believe wish to give back and will create a cohesive team,” Rabbi Brander said. “External evaluations have shown that this summer experience is quite successful.” He believes the program remains relevant even 12 years after its founding, given that life in Israeli development towns has not improved much.
“The South is a region of Israel that is still slightly detached from the rest of the country,” he added. “Often young people who live in development towns have little enthusiasm to be part of the larger Israeli society; they feel left out. Our goal is to allow them to take a second look at themselves, to bring to the summer camp young people who have gone through our program and have become productive members of society.”
Mr. Mintz, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Yeshiva College, was head counselor of the camp in Arad. “What we accomplished in those short three weeks was so much more than what we would have ever expected,” he said. “This was my second time participating on Counterpoint; last time being a counselor in Kiryat Malachi and Dimona. This new position made my experience drastically different.
“In the past, my responsibilities included prepping lessons to work with my individual class and making sure that the campers are involved and enjoying activities after English classes. As a head counselor, I made sure counselors were prepared for their lessons, all supplies were available, that everybody received what they wanted for lunch, discipline issues were taken care of and, of course planning night activities for my counselors, among many other duties.
“It was amazing to see how invested and hard-working my counselors were. I recall having several conversations with counselors past 10:30 p.m. in which they asked me for advice on how to interact with certain specific campers for various reasons including discipline or mental health issues.”
Mr. Mintz recalled at one point a very reserved camper mentioned that she was having a dance recital after one of the summer camp trips.
“This was the second year that her dance recital was the night of one of the trips,” he said. “Last year, she hardly had any friends from camp present at her performance as they were too tired to attend. My entire staff agreed that they would not let that happen again. After returning back from a long and tiring trip day, the counselors and I delayed eating our dinners for another two hours to observe our camper’s performance and join in her celebration.
“After her dance performance, we greeted her with a bouquet of flowers. When the camper saw us, she was overcome with emotion and had a huge smile on her face. For the remainder of camp, similar to the other campers, she seemed much happier and was less reserved.
“Stories like this have shown me that little actions can have a huge impact. People want to feel loved and cared about. If we give a little more of ourselves and go the extra distance, our actions can change the world, one person at a time.”
Counterpoint Israel 2017 was supported by the Jewish Agency, Partnership2gether, Neal’s Fund in memory of Neal Dublinsky, Sharon and Avram Blumenthal, the Gamson Family, in memory of Dr. Bernard W. Gamson, and the municipalities of Arad, Dimona, and Kiryat Malachi.