Area students teach disadvantaged kids in Israel

Area students teach disadvantaged kids in Israel

Shira Aron, third from left, and Hana Zaydens, bottom right, with campers in Dimona.

Hana Zaydens and Shira Aron were not expecting a bunch of disadvantaged Israeli teenagers to be enthusiastic about learning English during a hot summer. As two of the 21 college students in the fourth annual Counterpoint Israel program sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, they figured some of the kids would simply be impossible to reach.

So when two of the toughest campers in each of their groups started staying after class to finish English worksheets, they were impressed.

“It was a really powerful experience, because then other boys and girls started doing the same thing, coming early to study the words on the board, or staying late,” said Zaydens, a University of Maryland sophomore from Paramus.

“We so often take pity on those in lower socioeconomic positions and dismiss them very easily. But they have just as much of a drive to learn as anybody else.”

“When they’re given the proper tools and attention they really can amount to so much,” said Aron, a Stern College junior from Teaneck.

Held this year in Dimona and Yerucham, the day camps are part of a month-long service-learning initiative to provide English instruction and workshops in arts, fashion, music, dance and sports for 110 campers going into eighth through 11th grades.

Parents were invited to join their children for evening programs in art, Torah learning, movie screenings, and discussion forums. That aspect “allows us to expand our reach beyond the campers, affecting the entire family and making a difference in these development towns,” said CJF Dean Rabbi Kenneth Brander.

“For most of our campers, Counterpoint Israel represents the most meaningful Jewish educational experience of their year,” said Brander. In addition to promoting positive self-esteem among the children of Yerucham and Dimona, he added, the program aims to provide “an inspirational and transformational experience for our college counselors, our future Jewish leaders.”

In the weeks before and after camp, Counterpoint participants receive orientation on Zionism, geopolitics, social justice, and social responsibility. Chosen from among applicants from YU, Columbia, New York University, and the universities of Maryland and Pennsylvania, the participants began working on their lesson plans in April.

More than 100 Israeli teens from the southern Israel development towns of Yerucham and Dimona took part in “Touch the Sky,” a full-day activity during which they rode in hot air balloons and constructed working models. “Touch the Sky” was held during the fourth annual Counterpoint Israel Program, a month-long service-learning initiative run by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

“In the training session before camp, we worked through the socioeconomic issues pertaining to Negev development towns,” said Zaydens. “But when you get to camp, almost all of that goes out the window, because you’re just working with kids. They’re kids like anywhere else.”

However, both Aron and Zaydens found living in Dimona to be eye-opening.

“As Americans, we [ordinarily] go to Israeli hotels and downtown Jerusalem, and we think that’s Israel. Here there was a side of Israel I’ve never gotten to experience at all,” said Aron.

Chaim Cohen, a Yeshiva College junior from Teaneck, said all the neighbors next to the Yerucham apartment he shares with eight other Counterpoint counselors are friendly and welcoming.

“Everybody knows about the summer camp and tells us how much the kids enjoy it,” said Cohen, who has learned that giving a little responsibility to challenging campers can work wonders.

“One boy seemed very wild and out of control,” he related. On the advice of another counselor, Cohen asked him to start helping to supervise lunchtime each day. “Suddenly he was ‘Mr. Lunch,’ totally motivated and keeping all the other kids in line,” Cohen said.

At Yerucham, Counterpoint this summer began a counselor-in-training program for a select group of teens who excelled as campers in past years but have outgrown the program. The CITs are participating in skill-building workshops and leadership training with their mentors.

Zaydens, a Bergen County Academies alumna hoping to work in adolescent counseling, said Counterpoint taught her most of all about herself.

“Every day I revealed the depths of the connections I can make with other people and with myself,” she said. “I’ve learned how deep a relationship can go even if there is a language barrier, a geographic barrier, and an age barrier. It just melts away. You are them and they are you.”

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