A very un-Birthright summer
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Southern hospitality

A very un-Birthright summer

On Counterpoint Israel, change-driven US college students are running camps for troubled kids in the unglamorous Israeli south

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

YU Counterpoint Israel counselors and campers (photo credit: courtesy Counterpoint)
YU Counterpoint Israel counselors and campers (photo credit: courtesy Counterpoint)

When Jeni Rossberg was growing up in Baltimore and attending Jewish Day School, she saw plenty of photographs of Israel. She had friends and family who traveled there and returned with stories of the country’s beautiful cities, its spiritual richness, and its deeply Jewish nature.

So when Rossberg decided to travel to Israel herself for the first time, she was worried that her maiden visit might be a bit of a letdown.

That’s because Rossberg, an 18-year-old student at Yeshiva University in New York City, wasn’t headed for Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or the brilliant beaches of Eilat. For her first trip in Israel, she decided to set up shop in the peripheral city of Kiryat Malachi, working as a summer camp counselor with some of that city’s most troubled kids through the YU Counterpoint Israel program.

Jeni Rossberg, left, joined Counterpoint Israel for her first-ever trip to the country. (photo credit: courtesy Counterpoint)
Jeni Rossberg, left, joined Counterpoint Israel for her first-ever trip to the country. (photo credit: courtesy Counterpoint)

“I love Kiryat Malachi,” Rossberg says, seated at a table in the classroom of the local school where she and her co-counselor run an English-language class every morning. “I don’t want to leave. With Kiryat Malachi, you come here and you have your first impression, but those first impressions are not what stick with you.”

The Yeshiva University Counterpoint camps, which wrapped up their eighth summer in Israel last month, are unlike any other program in the broad realm of Israel-Diaspora relations. Some 60 Modern Orthodox college kids, affluent and idealistic, leave behind their comfortable student lives in New York City to dive head first, for three weeks, into Israel’s most seeping social problems: poverty, immigration, and the realities of life lived within spitting distance of the Gaza Strip.

There are currently five YU Counterpoint Israel programs, in Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat, Arad, Beersheva, and Dimona. A sixth program, in the teensy Negev town of Yerucham, was recently dismantled for what program coordinators say is the best possible reason: the city no longer needed it.

Gila Rockman, center, Counterpoint Israel director, with two campers. (photo credit: courtesy Counterpoint)
Gila Rockman, center, Counterpoint Israel director, with two campers. (photo credit: courtesy Counterpoint)

Working in pairs, counselors begin the day at YU Counterpoint camps with an English-language immersion class for local teenagers, all of whom are between the ages of 13 and 18 and sit along the lowest rung of achievers at their schools. Nearly all come from poor, secular families; many are Ethiopian immigrants or have immigrant parents who speak neither English nor Hebrew. After the 90 intense minutes of English class wrap up, the campers get to enjoy chugim activities like drumming and art, followed by lunch, sports, and occasional field trips.

It’s slightly odd to see these modestly dressed counselors, who all bear the sweetness and eagerness to please that marks so many young American Jews, holding court in front of a blackboard with a room of raucous, dark-skinned teenagers. Chaos reigns, with kids scooting in and out of class, shouting in Hebrew over the counselors’ English-language admonitions, and grabbing for the free breakfast of chocolate milk and bread that is passed around during the camp’s first hours. Don’t be fooled by the lack of order, Rossberg says. Things are going exactly according to plan.

“These kids…I think that after years and years, people have given up on them. It’s a very poor area and they’re very hard to work with. They’re difficult,” she says. “They like to do their own thing and they like to fight with each other. But they’re absolutely amazing. I see them every morning and we give each other hugs, we talk about their families, we talk about what they like to do after school, things like that. I think that we are making a difference because they are able to warm up to people more easily. And, in terms of speaking English, some of them have really come a long way.”

Head counselor Adina Minkowitz, right, says the camps are the ideal place for people looking to truly give back to Israel. (photo credit: courtesy Counterpoint)
Head counselor Adina Minkowitz, right, says the camps are the ideal place for people looking to truly give back to Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy Counterpoint)

This year the camps, which wrapped up in late July, were buoyed by research supporting Rossberg’s claims. At the end of summer 2012, the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University hired an independent research company to conduct a study of their camps’ impact. The results, said Research Success Technologies CEO Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, “show that Counterpoint is a transformative experience for campers, with the camps providing a learning environment that is different, and in certain ways, more effective than the school environment.”

But the camps seem to resonate even more with the counselors than they do with the campers.

“It’s a very cool contrast to be with Israelis who are living an irreligious life for the most part, and to see how I can help them as well,” says Aviah Saltzman, 24, a YU graduate and recent immigrant to Israel who now works during the school year at seminary for religious girls in Jerusalem. Deeply Orthodox, Saltzman says that coming face to face with Israeli teenagers whose lives differ so sharply from her own has been a wake up call of the best possible kind.

“I needed it,” she says, “as a balance between very religious and not religious. And I’m still working with Jewish people in Israel. I find it incredibly important.”

Adina Minkowitz, who served as lead counselor this summer, says the camps provide an ideal outlet for Israel-minded Americans who want to have an impact that runs deeper than Birthright or a semester abroad.

“There are some counselors here who may want to move to the south [of Israel] after working here,” says Minkowitz, a 21-year-old recent graduate of Yeshiva University who is headed to dental school this fall. “They see that, when they come here, that they can make a real change, and if you’re the kind of person who wants to come to Israel and make a difference, then this is the place to do it.”

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