It was supposed to be a summer spent revitalizing two Israeli towns. Through courage and an intense sense of purpose, it still was but against the backdrop of a war.
Ten students from Yeshiva University spent a month in Israel this summer in conjunction with the humanitarian group Meir Panim, running camps and other programs for the people of Yerucham and Dimona, two of the poorest cities in Israel. Even as the war against Hezbollah raged in the north, three Bergen County YU psychology students in a four-week program called Counterpoint Israel, from July ‘ to Aug. 1, worked in soup kitchens, painted houses, and ran a camp for high school-age teenagers in Yerucham. Targeted at teens who would otherwise just be "bumming around," the English-language camp sessions worked on building self-esteem, avoiding peer pressure, and how to contribute to society, said Philip Moskowitz, a YU representative who accompanied the students.
There were tight security restrictions placed on the students when the war began July 1′. As a rule, when students had free time they were not allowed to travel farther north than Tel Aviv.
"We obviously expressed deep concern for their safety," Moskowitz said. "Security was our No. 1 concern. We were in constant contact."
Batya Levine, a ‘0-year-old Stern College student from Englewood, said she was proud of the contribution she made while there.
"At first we felt a little bit helpless," she said, but she and the others quickly adapted. "It was just an extra thing to deal with, an extra thing for the kids to think about. Nothing in the program changed because of it."
In addition to the three-week summer camp in Yerucham, Levine and her fellow students also spent a week and a half working in a soup kitchen and a shelter for battered women in Dimona. When the war broke out, though, they were in the middle of their camp and had to figure out how to address the issue with the Israeli campers.
"We wanted to talk with the kids but a lot had relatives up north," Levine said. "We didn’t want to force anything, because a lot were in very emotional places."
Because Yerucham and Dimona are both in the Negev, about ’00 families from northern towns went there to escape Hezbollah’s rockets. This became an opportunity for the YU students to get their campers involved in the community.
"The kids were able to feel like they were giving back to their country. They would babysit for families while the parents were looking for jobs," Levine said.
Levine’s mother in Englewood said that the war did not make her over-anxious about her daughter’s trip.
"I knew she was a distance from the war," Letha Levine said. "They were doing such incredible things for the community. We never gave any consideration to bringing Batya home. I felt safer with her being in Israel than I do about her being in Europe," she said, referring to her daughter’s trip to Italy, France, and Switzerland soon after she returned from Israel.
Two students chose to stay in Israel beyond the program to continue volunteering. They could not be reached for comment.
"To see people displaced from their homes is a tremendous lesson," Moskowitz said. "It’s a different type of Israel experience."
Other area students were in Israel this past year for different programs. Nineteen-year-old Jessica Glubo of Teaneck went to Israel on Young Judaea’s year course, from Sept. 4 to May 31. Although she came home from the Hadassah-sponsored program well before the war began, she still felt a strong connection with the Israelis living through the experience.
"It made me really depressed," Glubo said. "It was very difficult to hear about it. When you spend a year there, you feel really connected to the country. I was sad about their situation and how there’s nothing I could do."
Nineteen-year-old Leya Schwartz of Englewood, who was on the same Young Judaea program, said that the security while she was there was "great."
"Young Judaea’s security is very good. They have very good connections with the Israeli intelligence," she said. Although she and other students were sometimes put on security restrictions, Schwartz said she never felt in danger.
MASA, a joint project of the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel that aims to strengthen Jewish identity, provided both young women with scholarships toward the Young Judaea program.
Even with all the security, refugees from the north, and threats of rockets, all the students said they were eager to return to Israel. Perhaps next summer will provide a completely different Israel experience.
"I really grew connected to the land this year," said Schwartz. "My program really helped me do that."