Submitted by Andi Koppelman, executive director
Summer camp is essential to Jewish educational experience. Summer programs launch friendships, cultivate life skills, and instill Jewish values unlike any other Jewish institution. Today, parents have a vast array of summer programs to choose from: sports, travel, art, coding, drama, and the list goes on!
One new program catching the attention of teens and parents alike is not a summer camp, but a volunteer program called Kol HaNearim (KH). Established in 2010 by Michael Reidler and Ezra Gontownik, Kol HaNearim flips the summer experience by empowering teens to become big brothers and sisters to at-risk children living in residential children’s homes in Israel.
The work is hard, the hours are long, and comfort zones are often left in the dust. Founder Michael Reidler is famous for reminding participants that everything they do on KH is FTK — For The Kids — not themselves! Volunteers find themselves navigating cultural differences, language barriers, and the challenges of building trust with kids who come from vastly different backgrounds than their own. Despite these challenges, volunteers return year after year raving about the unique experience at KH.
Rachelli Klibanoff, a KH alumna, grew up in Livingston, New Jersey. She heard about KH while she was a junior at Kushner from previous volunteers and was intrigued. When her parents participated in a bat mitzvah at one of Emunah children’s homes and suggested she attend KH, it solidified her decision. Giving back was so transformative and impactful for Rachelli that she returned as a volunteer for two more summers! This upcoming summer, 2021, she will join KH once again, but this time as a coordinator to help inspire our volunteers the same way she has been inspired. Rachelli speaks about how KH has changed her life: “Day to day it has humbled me; it makes me aware of my surroundings. I have learned that there are many people who need help and I am fortunate enough that I am able to help them.”
Amiel Kerstein, a KH alumnus, grew up in Woodmere and was a junior in DRS when he first heard about Kol HaNearim. That summer, his friends were going to a camp in Pennsylvania. KH was an opportunity to get out of his comfort zone and he would not have a single friend on the program. Amiel highlighted how KH taught him “how to be uncomfortable and uncertain about things and that it’s OK to feel that way sometimes. He expressed how his connection with Israel was always very “American” — vacations, chagim, visiting tourist locations, and all the “it” spots, but never really being immersed in genuine Israel. Amiel’s experience on KH in an Emunah home was the complete opposite! Living with Israeli children in one of the five Emunah residential homes in Israel forces you to immerse yourself into the culture and to truly learn where the children are from and who they are. The connection he established with these Emunah children and Israel has had a profound, lasting effect on him; Amiel will be going to Israel and drafting into the army this coming year.
Laurie Szenicer, CEO of Emunah of America, said, “Kol HaNearim is an important partnership for Emunah of America. We are grateful to Michael Reidler and Ezra Gontownik for this groundbreaking camp model. The Kol HaNearim volunteers have an incredible impact on the children living in Emunah’s homes, creating a meaningful and exciting summer experience for Emunah’s children and Kol HaNearim volunteers.”
These Kol HaNearim voices offer a peek into how volunteerism empowers teens and shapes their futures. The common good is advanced long-term when young adults discover that all it takes is one person to truly make a difference. KH volunteers have been transformed by their amazing experiences. We look forward to inspiring many more of today’s teens through our incredible KH program.
If you would like more information about the Kol HaNearim program please contact Andi Koppelman, executive director.