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Counselors and campers doing acrobatics in Be’er Sheva. All photos courtesy NJ Y Camps

Bringing a bunch of American public high school sophomores to help stage a week-long summer camp for Israeli Ethiopian children may seem counterintuitive. After all, the counselors and campers lack a common language and culture.

Yet this is exactly what the Koby Mandell Foundation did this summer, in cooperation with the New Jersey YMHA-YWHA Camps’ Experience in Israel program. Some 43 incoming sophomores from the area are just wrapping up nearly five weeks in Israel. During their stay, they toured the country and volunteered at a community center day camp for four- to 11-year-old Ethiopian children in Be’er Sheva.

“We found, initially to our surprise, that the language barrier is easy to overcome,” said Roy Angstreich, executive director of the Koby Mandell Foundation. Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell established the foundation in 2001; it is in memory of their 13-year-old son Koby, who was murdered by terrorists as he hiked near their home in Israel. The foundation runs unique programs for Israelis affected by terror and bereavement, and in the past few years it added programs for underprivileged populations.

The Americans “seem to work it out, and our Hebrew-speaking staff works with them,” Angstreich said.

Indeed, Brenda Bolofsky, a student at Fair Lawn High School, recalls that on her first day at the camp she zeroed in on one shy girl, about nine years old, who did not seem to have friends. Using not much more than hand signals, Brenda managed to have a whole conversation with the child about their respective sisters. “She was really cute,” Brenda reported. “At the end, we hugged.”

“We want the American kids to meet Israelis and the challenges faced by some parts of society, and we’ve had a lot of success in the south,” Angstreich said. “The community center we worked with in Be’er Sheva is only for Ethiopians, many of whom have issues in terms of adjustment to Israeli life, and we thought it would be a perfect match because they were open to creative programming for kids who would otherwise have been home doing nothing.”

“Though we really couldn’t communicate, we ran a carnival for the kids and went to a children’s science museum with them and a circus arts program. It was really fun for us,” Jacob Studwell of New City, N.Y., added.

Jason Stolar of Fair Lawn said that he and a friend spied a little boy sitting alone in the corner. “We went over to him and tried speaking to him, but he didn’t speak any English,” Jason said. “Then my friend finds a bottle cap on the floor and he says one word, ‘football,’ and the kid gets up and we start playing bottle-cap soccer.

“His facial expression changed within a minute. He went from being sad and shy to being the happiest kid ever. It was just great.”

The Y participants spent most of their time in Israel sightseeing, hiking, and experiencing life in the Jewish state.

Each of the four Y campers we spoke with at their Jerusalem hotel talked about a particular experience during their trip that each thinks is likely to stay with him or her for years.

For Wayne Valley High School sophomore Sophie Haiman, whose family belongs to Temple Beth Tikvah, it was discovering that Shabbat services at the Western Wall were not what she expected.

“I thought it would be serious and boring, but I noticed it was more fun and upbeat and made me look at the religion differently,” said Sophie, a first-time Israel tourist who adds that she felt “at home” throughout her trip, even though her parents initially were hesitant about allowing her to participate because of safety concerns.

Brenda loved walking through Hezekiah’s water tunnel in Jerusalem’s City of David. She had been to Israel in 2010 on a week-long trip with the Fair Lawn Jewish Center and was eager to return for an extended stay. “I wanted to experience Israel with my friends,” she said.

For Jason, the highlight was a water hike in the Golan Heights that ended at a big waterfall and swimming hole. “It was ice cold, but one of the greatest moments of my life, sharing a once-in-a-lifetime moment with my best friends,” he said.

Jacob, a student at Clarkstown North High School, especially enjoyed exploring the Negev desert and making pita bread on a giant taboon oven. The beauty he saw in the country surprised him, he said. “I wanted to take pictures everywhere. It looks totally different than where I live in New York.”

And being Jewish in Israel also felt different, he added. “Today, my friend said he wanted to wear his kippah out, and he knew no one would stare or judge him because everyone’s Jewish here.”

Jason said that he thought Israelis were similar to Americans. “Many kids in the States feel Israel is dangerous and intimidating, especially if you’re an American, but it’s not like that at all,” he said.

“At the places we’ve stayed at, we’ve made friends with many Israeli teenagers and they were extremely nice and very funny. It’s a beautiful place and it is peaceful.”