|Chaim Metzger teaches in Kiryat Gat. photos courtesy Yeshiva University|
Middle-school Israelis in hardscrabble development towns asked a surprising question of the Yeshiva University students who came to teach them English during winter break: Are you Jewish?
The question itself underlines why the university’s Center for the Jewish Future put significant resources into planning a mere week of “Israel-diaspora Relations” classes, art projects, and workshops. About 40 Counterpoint Israel participants presented the program to 850 teens in seven student-run camps in the southeastern towns of Dimona, Kiryat Gat, and Kiryat Malachi.
“Every student in Israel has roots in the diaspora, but most of them have never had a chance to learn about where they come from,” said Aliza Abrams, director of YU’s CJF Department of Jewish Service Learning. “By taking this important introspective journey with counselors who are themselves from the diaspora, the students will realize how much they have in common with Jews around the world.”
“Counterpoint is a great example of Israel-diaspora relations, of cultures intersecting and learning about each other,” said Kiva Rabinsky, programs director of the CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education.
He said the curriculum is designed to help the Israeli students improve their English “in an atmosphere of attention, care and love,” but also to learn about their commonalities and differences with Jews in the diaspora and to explore their own family’s heritage.
Teaching in pairs, the YU students helped the youngsters construct a poster map showing population centers of world Jewry. Mr. Rabinsky said this activity was “mind-blowing” for some of the children. In succeeding days, the kids designed postage stamps on the theme of global Jewry, which the Israel Postal Authority printed as actual stamps to post letters between the Israeli and YU students, who come from North America, Panama, and Colombia.
Six students from Teaneck where chosen for the second annual Counterpoint Israel Winter Camp: Tehilla Brander, who went to Dimona; Rebecca Kleiner and Chaim Metzger, who both went to Kiryat Gat, and Rebecca Peyser, Etana Staiman, and Sam Weinstein, who all went to Kiryat Malachi. Romy Koenig of Bergenfield went to Kiryat Malachi, and Avi Seidman of Bergenfield and Jennifer Lebowitz of Fair Lawn both went to Kiryat Gat.
Their sojourn in Israel, from January 9 to 19, included a week in the schools, three days of touring, working with youth at risk and parents of high-school dropouts, crafting pots and eating a traditional meal with Ethiopian immigrants involved in a special farming project, visiting an Aroma cafÃ© in Rehovot run by youth at risk, and touring the Negev home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
The winter camp, which is supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation and Repair the World, is an abbreviated version of a summer Counterpoint program and was implemented at the suggestion of school officials in the towns served, Mr. Rabinsky said.
“Our host cities asked for us to come back in the winter. In Kiryat Gat, for example, four of the five school principals came to a meeting with the head of the local board of education, and they said Counterpoint’s effect had been so great they wanted it in all their schools this winter.”
Rebecca Kleiner, a sophomore at YU’s Stern College for Women, said she saw Counterpoint as an opportunity to “give something and also gain something for myself, to bring in my perspective and learn theirs on Israel-diaspora relations, and to be a good role model beyond just teaching English and learning a little more Hebrew.”
Working with eighth-graders in Kiryat Gat and staying in Kiryat Malachi, allowed her to see another side of Israel, a side to which tourists do not often gain access. She noted that the students with whom she worked come from varying religious backgrounds but all were from disadvantaged families.
She and her teaching partner had to work hard to keep everyone focused on the lesson and art project. “The first day, some kids in the back weren’t so interested – their English was not so great, and we were going back and forth between English and Hebrew. But even at the end of that first lesson they were not only participating but assisting their friends. We saw such a transition, and that was immediately rewarding.”
Jenny Lebowitz, a Stern junior majoring in psychology, said her eighth-graders gasped when they saw her writing Hebrew words on the blackboard. “It was eye-opening for me and for them, to know there are Jews all over the world. And we are all so different, but our roots keep us in common with one another.
“When I said I was from New Jersey, which is right by New York, a lot of them were asking me if I knew all these celebrities,” she recalled. “I wanted them to realize what they have in Israel is very special and we all have this connection.” She hopes to stay in touch with some of them.
Stern junior Romy Koenig said she was unsure about the impact they had made until last Friday night. The Counterpoint students staying in Kiryat Malachi had invited the youngsters they worked with to meet them for games and refreshments.
“At first, five kids came, and Kiva thought that would be it,” she said. Slowly but surely, about 40 kids showed up, including five girls from my class. I played games with them, and we had a great time. It was really an amazing experience.
“When we saw them in class on Sunday, we played that game and the other kids were sad they hadn’t been there,” she said.