|Merav Saden-Barach, in yellow shirt, with Kiryat Malachi campers.|
This is the ninth year of Counterpoint Israel, a service-learning initiative sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.
But it’s the first time that Counterpoint counselors – several of them from North Jersey – have had to cut short their day camps for disadvantaged kids because of rocket fire.
The decision to pull out of the northern Negev development towns of Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi at 11 o’clock one night was not taken lightly, says Counterpoint Israel co-director Kiva Rabinsky. The schedule called for two weeks in these towns and then two weeks in Dimona and Arad, altogether serving about 300 children and teens.
After a nighttime missile attack in Kiryat Gat/Kiryat Malachi, the 35 Yeshiva and Stern College students were bused to YU’s Jerusalem campus. The hope was that the campers, too, could be bused there, so they could enjoy the remaining three days of the program. That plan was scrapped out of concern for the travelers’ vulnerability on the road.
“We hope to have a day of closure for these campers back on their home turf after our Dimona and Arad camps are over,” Mr. Rabinsky said.
Merav Saden-Barach of Teaneck, 21, said the counselors remained in touch with the Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi campers during those remaining days via the mobile application WhatsApp. “It’s sad we haven’t seen them,” she said. “I hope we’ll go back there before we leave.”
Meanwhile, the two groups of counselors are finishing out the program housed at a high school dormitory in Dimona, with YU security in place.
Most of the seventh- to 11th-graders in the day camps they staff are categorized as “youth at risk” due to poor scholastic achievement, low socioeconomic status, and/or a tendency toward violence. They are mainly of Ethiopian, North African, and Russian heritage; some are religiously observant and some are not.
Ms. Saden-Barach, who is going into her senior year, said a typical day at the Dimona camp for 80 children includes games, a choice of activities ranging from art to sports, and an English lesson focused on a different topic every day, such as time management, hobbies, and self-esteem.
“The idea is to teach in a fun, engaging way,” she said. “We personalize the lesson plans to the kids we deal with.”
The YU students have picked up some Hebrew vernacular as well, such as the word “azaka” (alarm). “We had one azaka in Dimona while I was in art chug [club], and it was a little tense but we started doing a Dimona cheer we have and it really lightened the mood,” Ms. Saden-Barach said.
On Friday night, many campers voluntarily joined an oneg Shabbat with the counselors. “One of the older boys came and told his life story – how he had been rebellious and dropped out of school, but realized he wasn’t accomplishing anything so he changed his ways. Now he is very behind on English studies and wants so badly to learn, so he is working with some of the counselors during lunch,” she said.
Counterpoint Israel is made possible by donors, and each of the four cities served contributes funds to the program.
“For years, the municipalities have watched as their high school youth flourished in our camps and realized that they needed to do something to make sure that this trend not only continues but reaches as many students as possible,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander of Teaneck, the founding dean of the Center for the Jewish Future.
Stern junior Rebecca Kleiner of Teaneck, 20, said that she hopes the English lessons will enable her Arad campers to pass their matriculation exams “and get out of the cycle that a lot of people in their communities are stuck in.”
She noted that she has experienced 11 air-raid sirens over two weeks’ time, but only one during camp hours. “The kids all knew where to go without running or panicking, and within a few seconds everyone was in the shelter and started immediately playing games. It was like camp had just moved to a different room for 10 minutes.”
Mr. Rabinsky said that all Counterpoint participants were given the option of pulling out once Operation Protective Edge began. “Nobody wanted to leave,” he reported. “The most common reaction was that there is no place they’d rather be. And really, aside from the occasional siren there is a feeling of normalcy, and we’re having a good time.”
Indeed, Ms. Kleiner said, “If there is one place I’d rather be, it’s in Israel. YU has been updating our parents every step of the way and we are in constant contact to let them know everything is going as normal; we’re just taking extra precautions.
“The kids are having a blast, and thank God we’ve been able to work within the parameters of the situation.”
Ms. Saden-Barach felt the same way. “I had no hesitation about staying. I feel very secure and the program is run really well. It’s important to be here and do what we’re doing.” She expects to stay in touch with campers after she goes back to New Jersey.
Other local students involved in Counterpoint Israel are Joseph Friedman, Jonathan Kaplan, Daniella Lejtman, and Sam Weinstein of Teaneck, and Adeevah Goldstein and Avraham Persin of Passaic.