image
Elisheva Wrubel, second from right, bowls with counselors and campers.

At a time when many college students choose more leisurely – or lucrative – pursuits, in July five Yeshiva University undergraduate students from Teaneck traveled to Israel, where they ran summer camps in communities in which many socioeconomically disadvantaged families live.

The five – Rivka Kaminetzky, Batya Sadek, Eliana Stone, Sam Weinstein, and Elisheva Wrubel – were among a group of 56 volunteers from North America, the United Kingdom, and Panama who were part of the university’s Counterpoint Israel Program. Marking its eighth season this year, the program served some 300 13- to 17-year-old campers in Arad, Be’er Sheva, Dimona, Kiryat Gat, and Kiryat Malachi, cities in the country’s southern region where segments of the population live in poverty.

Counterpoint Israel is a program of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, or CJF, which serves as the nucleus of YU’s educational and community-strengthening efforts. The university sent its first Counterpoint contingent to Melbourne, Australia, in 1972, and since then other YU Counterpoint participants have gone on to become leaders in their professions and communities. The program is popular – this year’s participants were chosen from a pool of some 150 candidates.

“In considering candidates [for Counterpoint Israel], we wanted students who are creative, flexible, open to overcoming language and cultural barriers, and willing to apply their experience to their career paths when they return to campus,” Kiva Rabinsky said. Rubinsky, who is based at YU’s Gruss Campus in Jerusalem, is Israel programs director for CJF and co- director of Counterpoint Israel.

“We also looked for people who can work well together as a team,” he added.

Kaminetzky, Sadek, Stone, and Wrubel are students at YU’s Stern College for Women in midtown Manhattan, and Weinstein studies uptown at the university’s Yeshiva College. As counselors, their work began in June, well before the camps’ July 2 start date, when the entire group gathered at a retreat in upstate New York for five days to create this year’s programming.

“The activities needed to be about strengthening the campers’ self-confidence and about showing them what they could accomplish, even if in small steps,” Rabinsky said.

The program’s tried-and-true formula, developed over the years, includes classes given in English and workshops in arts and crafts, fashion, music, dance, and sports. The group was tasked with creating a curriculum for all five camps that was in keeping with the Counterpoint Israel mission while providing campers with an unforgettable summer experience. The schedule of activities they hammered out included weekly trips, volunteer opportunities, scavenger hunts, movie nights, and programming on Shabbat.

“First and foremost, we wanted to give the campers something they don’t get at home. We weren’t interested in becoming involved in their personal lives or telling them what to do. We wanted them to have an awesome time,” Wrubel said. She is a psychology major who was based in Be’er Sheva.

Beyond fun, however, the brainstorming called for creating an engaging experience that would foster learning and empower campers through acquiring knowledge and skills.

“Some of the kids don’t do well in school, so we wanted camp to be an environment that is different, and in certain ways even more effective than the school environment,” Stone, a Judaic studies major who worked in Arad this summer, said. “Whether developing their English or discovering new talents, we wanted an atmosphere that would encourage campers and help them feel a sense of accomplishment.”

Another requirement in planning the curriculum was that it be Jewish-values driven.

“Most of the kids in these communities are traditional,” Sadek, an elementary-education major who helped run the Dimona camp, said. “Their identity as Jews reflects tradition rather than practice. We wanted them to see that, ‘Wow, our counselors love being Jewish and I want to be like them.’

“We hoped they would connect to things Jewish, to incorporate Jewish thought into discussions and activities.”

Once camp was under way, the counselors worked full days and prepared for the next day at night. The long hours made it hard work but it was a labor of love, according to Kaminetzky, a junior who also worked in Dimona.

“At first, the kids couldn’t understand what we were doing, why we were willing to take three weeks off and spend the time with them,” she said. “But that gesture, and the things they saw we did for them, made them understand that they were worthwhile human beings. We saw them gaining confidence in their own selves.”

According to the counselors, they developed strong bonds with their campers during the three weeks of camp, and they intend to keep in touch with them and continue to give them encouragement. “These kids are great, and they have the most amazing hearts. Hopefully, they’ll want to keep growing and being better – for me, for us,” Kaminetzky said.

Now that camp is over – the last day was July 22 – the five will have ample time before school starts in September to reflect on their experience and assess their success in achieving their goals. But Rabinsky says they should also take pride in knowing that they made an impact on the communities in which they served.

“The bottom line is that Counterpoint changes lives,” he said, citing data from a recent CJF report that indicates the program is a transformative experience for campers. He extrapolated to include the counselors, as well.

“Counselors gain skills and confidence as educators, broaden their Jewish horizons and come to view their service work through a Jewish lens. But, most important, the program motivates them to find professions that will allow them to contribute to the global Jewish community as well as strengthen the connection between Israel and American Jews,” he said.

The counselors couldn’t agree more.

“I came away feeling more comfortable having a conversation in Hebrew,” Wrubel said. “And because of this program and these kids, I’m more comfortable standing up in front of a group, leading a discussion, getting and keeping people’s attention, and involving them.”

For Sadek, the experience was good preparation for her chosen field, education. “I had to learn how to deal with kids who aren’t so well-behaved. Also, it was an opportunity for me to build relationships with kids who are vulnerable. Kids who needed to hear from me that I wanted to spend my summer with them.”

Kaminetzky took from the experience a deeper appreciation for communities like Dimona and a greater love of Am Israel, while Stone, who intends to make aliyah “as soon as I can,” said she appreciated seeing another side of Israel.

“During my [post-high school] year of study in Israel, I attended an all-American seminary and went to all-American families,” she said. “My experience in Arad showed me the real Israel and it was amazing to be a part of it.

“I’ve never had an experience like this before.”