Romeo and Juliet spoke a mix of Hebrew and English in the production Israeli teenagers put on in the southern city of Arad this summer. Perhaps Shakespeare would be pleased to know — or perhaps he would have been astounded to learn — that his play served as a fun vehicle that a group of American Jewish college students could use to teach English to campers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
While the fictional young couple in the romantic tragedy is doomed by the irreconcilable differences between their families, the real-life campers and counselors in Yeshiva University’s Counterpoint Israel Program have been bridging the social, linguistic, and cultural divide successfully for 13 summers now.
The service-learning initiative aims to help young Israelis boost their self-esteem and Jewish values, along with their English and computer skills, while at the same time instilling a sense of civic responsibility in the YU student volunteers. This summer, 29 YU undergraduates ran Counterpoint camps in Arad, Dimona, and Kiryat Malachi, working with about 200 Israeli campers from July 10 to July 26.
“This past year I had become sensitized toward people in situations that are much less advantageous than mine, and it was important to me to do a program that helps people like that,” 20-year-old Zack Orenshein of Teaneck said.
He had never heard of Arad before he got his assignment, he added. The small blue-collar city lies 16 miles west of the Dead Sea and hosts a diverse population of secular and religious Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews from many lands.
Mr. Orenshein wasn’t sure what to expect. He found, to his surprise, that the sixth- through ninth-grade boys and girls attending the day camp “were really good-natured and capable, and that made it so much fun. It was kind of scary to realize that if these kids had grown up in a place like we did, with better opportunities, they could go just as far, if not farther, than we have.”
He and his fellow counselors paired up to teach English in the mornings, and led sports activities in the afternoons. The schedule also included art, computers, fashion, music, dance, identity-building and team-building exercises, and trips focused on Jewish history, heritage, and culture.
“One very friendly boy, a ninth-grader whose English was actually pretty good, really opened up to me about a bullying situation and I was able to give him a lot of support, empathy, and direction,” Mr. Orenshein said.
Counselors and their supervisors spent hours at the end of each day discussing their campers’ personal situations and how they could best meet their needs. Often, they would discover that kids who acted out or hung back were from families facing difficult circumstances.
“It really opened my eyes to what’s going on behind the scenes for people in general,” Mr. Orenshein said.
Counselor CJ Glicksman of Teaneck, who also is 20 years old, said that there was a girl in his Arad group with disciplinary problems. It turned out that her father recently began a four-year jail term.
“When we found out about her troubles at home, it clicked that these are not bad kids; they just need care and attention,” he said. “It’s disheartening, it’s sad to see — but at the same time it was good to feel we made an impact.”
Another girl in his group was inordinately quiet; finally, during the last two days of camp, Mr. Glicksman drew her out. He learned that she bounces back and forth between her mother in Arad and her father in Ukraine. “She is a sweet, well-meaning kid who volunteers in an animal shelter, and it was moving to hear the kind of background she came from,” he said. “We had the kids fill out a survey at the end, and I was surprised to read that she wrote that she made a connection with the counselors, had a fun time, and intends to return next year. But there’s only so much we can do in a short time, and I hope to keep in touch with her and have as much of an impact as I can.”
He added that the impact the campers had on him was probably larger than the other way around. “I didn’t necessarily expect that,” he said. “Beforehand, I was a little scared to teach these tough Israeli kids, and at some point I realized they’re just like anyone else — they just want attention, to be loved and cared for.”
Mr. Glicksman said the children look up to American college students. They know that English proficiency can help them aspire to a successful future in academics, business, or technology. “Many of them who want to step out of their world need to understand American culture,” he said.
“One of the most unique attributes our American counselors have is an outsider’s perspective of Israel,” Eliana Sohn, co-director of Counterpoint Israel, said. “With that perspective, which is deeply positive and supportive, comes an optimism and appreciation that teens in southern Israeli towns may never have experienced before, and so, through their counselors, they view their country through a new lens — one of opportunity, enthusiasm, and esteem.”
No less important, she added, “In times when tensions hang over the region, Israeli teens see that American Jewish college students still decide that Israel is the place they want to spend their free time. Having the opportunity to connect and build relationships with American Jewry is in and of itself what the teens in our camps cherish the most, and tends to be the greatest motivator in their learning English.”
In addition to Mr. Orenshein and Mr. Glicksman, Bergen County participants in Counterpoint Israel 2018 were Alisa Neugroschl of Bergenfield and Ami Malek of Teaneck, who staffed the camp in Dimona. As of this year, all the college students received academic credit for their participation.