Daniella Lesser of Lawrence  with students in Kiryat Gat
Daniella Lesser of Lawrence
with students in Kiryat Gat

By Toby Klein Greenwald

Jeffrey Kiffel of Cedarhurst, a 21-year-old senior who is studying in the Mazer Yeshiva Program at Yeshiva University, was one of the participants in this year’s YU Israel’s Counterpoint Program. We asked him, Why this program in Israel?

“First of all, I wanted to come back to Israel and experience a different side of Israel than what I had experienced previously. One of the things we all noticed was that the majority of the Israeli population is actually closer [more similar] to the communities we visit on this program than those we see in Jerusalem, in Rechavia, for instance. The program took place in Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi, and they’re beautiful communities. I was in Kiryat Gat, where many of the kids are underprivileged, so we came to give them the attention that they need.”

This year’s “Winter Camp” was a ten-day mission that took place January 9—19, during winter break. Its aim was to empower 850 Israeli teens from low socioeconomic backgrounds. This was the program’s second year and it doubled in size, working with the communities of Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, and Dimona. The YU students came from North America, Panama, and Colombia. They guided the Israeli teens through a curriculum focused on English enrichment and self-exploration through art. It is under the auspices of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future.

“Counterpoint continues to grow in size and expand its influence, impacting entire communities and changing countless lives along the way,” said Kiva Rabinsky, programs director of the CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education. He said that the program gives YU students “an opportunity to hone their leadership skills while taking on the roles of Jewish agents of change,” which encourages an environment “in which young, underprivileged Israeli teens feel loved, accomplished, and comfortable enough to open up to new people and experiences.”

This year, “Israel—Diaspora Relations” was the theme for the art projects and workshops, and the Israeli students were encouraged to examine their Diaspora roots and develop a personal narrative based on their findings.

Jeffrey was a teacher for a week. The YU Counterpoint students receive lesson programs that have been prepared by the Counterpoint staff. “We have a curriculum that we impart, but a lot of what’s supposed to be communicated, that’s not in the curriculum, is the English language. We’re trying to introduce them to English because that’s one of the differences between the upper and lower classes and it allows you to move up.” He taught a mixed-gender class of eighth-graders in a mamlachti (secular public) school, but said that many of them were traditional in their Jewish practice.

Each Counterpoint set of students–they taught in pairs, men and women–teaches in three schools, an hour and a half in each one, with what Jeffrey calls “a short window of time to get to the next one.”

Aliza Abrams, the director of YU’s CJF Department of Jewish Service Learning, says that when the Israeli students, all of whom have roots in the Diaspora, take “this important introspective journey with counselors who are themselves from the Diaspora, the students will realize how much they have in common with Jews around the world.”

“One of the reasons it works,” said Jeffrey, “is because, especially in these areas of the country, they look up to Americans; they don’t see many Americans coming to visit, so we’re novelties. It’s not only the kids who are interested. Some of the adult teachers were also interested in talking to us and asking us questions about our backgrounds, so it becomes an exchange of cultural backgrounds and brings everyone together.”

Outside the classrooms, the YU students worked with youth at risk and ran workshops for the parents of high-school dropouts. The YU students broadened their knowledge of the Ethiopian community in Israel by interacting with Ethiopians involved in a special farming project that promotes self-sufficiency.

Daniella Lesser from Lawrence, 20, who is studying history at Stern and plans to pursue law, was also in the program. “I can’t begin to describe to you what an amazing, phenomenal program it is,” she said. “Kudos to whoever organized it, because there is no [other] program as effective. We saw that we’re the same; we love and support these children. The first half of each lesson we did interactive activities that were intelligently designed, and in the arts-and-crafts project they would express their feelings through their hearts. More people should be involved. I would love to be able to continue my connection with these Israeli students, who were wonderful. I feel that I impacted on these children’s lives and maybe helped them.”

“Every child needs to be encouraged, and they feel so important after we’ve spent this time with them. We really are am echad–one nation–and we are all here for each other and we are all brothers and sisters. Kiva did a phenomenal job and is a real leader,” she added.

I spoke with Jeffrey at the program’s close.

“Today was our last day of the program, so it was more emotional. Each class reacted differently when they said goodbye. At the first school they made a little booklet for each of us, with 10 to 15 papers stapled together, on which each kid who wanted to wrote a little goodbye note. Those notes impressed upon me how much they valued what we were doing. A lot of them were sad to see us go. We’d seen that they cared and they were enjoying it before that as well, but that really drove it home. We weren’t the only teaching pair to receive something like that, and they did a good job of hiding the secret until the class was over.” When Jeffrey graduates, he plans to continue to law school. He says that he has no plans for aliyah.

In addition to its Israel programming, YU reported that the Center for the Jewish Future will be running other winter missions in Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, and Detroit, and a weeklong service mission to the Ukraine. The Counterpoint Israel “Winter Camps” are run with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation and Repair the World. v


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