When it comes time for the traditional back-to-school essay, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," at least 110 teenagers from Yeroham and Dimona will have plenty to write about: They learned breakdancing, American baseball, the fine art of tie-dye, and how to Twitter with more class than Tweety Bird ever dreamed of.
Even more importantly, all 110 vastly improved their English - which was the main point of Yeshiva University's "Counterpoint Israel" program, which brought 21 American student counselors to the two Negev development towns for an August day camp.
Now in its fourth year, the YU program has become so successful parents want to sign up their teenagers for the next summer even before the current program ends. No one wants to risk ending up on the dreaded waiting list for openings that rarely appear.
But it makes you wonder: Why would Israeli teenagers in the Negev be so interested in baseball and breakdancing?
"It started at the very beginning, when we approached the municipalities about starting a teenage summer camp," says Shuki Taylor, Israeli Director of Operations for YU's Center for the Jewish Future. "They wanted us to teach English, which was fine with us. But we knew if we held standard English classes for 8th to 11th graders, we'd never get them to come. In fact, almost everyone warned us we'd never get a teenage camp working at all. 'Teenagers are past camps,' they said. 'They want to hang out, relax, or work if they have jobs.'
"We decided to try, anyway," Taylor says. "We put together some really good PR with music and wild posters, then made the rounds talking about it. We told parents we were putting the whole weight of YU's student power - American students, with all their diverse talents - at the service of local kids. We emphasized that the camp would help their kids improve their English - which was something all the parents wanted. 'Fantastic', they said.
"So the teenagers came because everyone wanted better English. But that's not why they stayed. They stayed because they were having the time of their lives. We used 'English' as a vehicle to attract the audience - but then we offered much more besides: time management, self-esteem and computer skills, but also workshops in art, fashion, music, dance and sports. Our goal was to teach these kids that they are talented and creative, that they have a lot to offer, and most importantly, that they can achieve anything they want. Those aren't things these kids hear very often. It's almost unbelievable, but every kid came every day."
FIRST THING every morning was an English lesson, says Yaacov Miller, a 21-year-old YU student studying history and political science. Miller spent the first part of his summer on Capitol Hill, working for Congressman Darrell Issa, following last summer's gig, when he worked for Rep. Eric Cantor. After spending two summers in Congress, surely working with a bunch of Israeli teenagers would be simple.
"The English lessons were informal and very creative," Miller says. "We did fun things. There was one crazy game where I'd pop out of a box with items on the table - we ran it like a game show and the kids loved it. Every English lesson taught something else, too, and it worked. At the beginning of the summer, there was one kid who couldn't even write his own name in English - forget about speaking English. By the end, he was not only speaking English but writing his name in cursive. It was amazing to watch. Not just his vastly improved English but all the self-confidence he gained."
The campers were divided into two groups, about half and half, between Dimona and Yeroham. Every counselor taught English to ten teens. At 11:30 programming changed and each camper could choose among three chugim (workshops). After lunch, a different three chugim were available. According to Miller, "The idea was to expand their horizons, give these kids an experience they wouldn't otherwise have. After the afternoon workshops, we'd play games. One of my favorites was 'Find the Counselor.' We'd dress up in crazy costumes, everything from a haredi man to a homeless guy, and we'd go to the mall. The kids had to identify us."
One of Miller's classes was breakdancing, which gave him an emotional high. "At the end of the whole program there was a big Presentation Night, where the campers perform and demonstrate for their parents everything they'd learned. One kid had a sad story - his father was in prison - so I made a point of spending a lot time with him. At the final program the breakdancers were going to perform, but I was a little worried. This particular kid wasn't much of a dancer, but we still wanted him in the program. Building self-esteem is a big part of the program. At the last moment, I picked him up and put him on my shoulders, and we danced and danced. The look on his face, that thousand-watt smile, was not to be believed. That's one of the things I'll never forget."
AS IMPORTANT as learning English and building confidence is among the campers, Yeshiva University has its own goals for the counselors, says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of YU's Center for the Jewish Future. "Our overall goal is to inspire students to become change agents in the world. Working with communities to help others actualize their dreams is one way of doing that."
The 21 counselors are all college or university students, he says, but only about half come from YU. They all go through a rigorous screening process, where the most important quality they look for is to be a team player. "Counterpoint is a team building exercise. Summer camps can't be run with lone rangers. We also look for people who are willing to give of themselves. They're all in the 21-24 age range, so they could all be working and earning money. We're also looking for people who are themselves searching for what they want out of life. After this program, many make decisions to go into education - Jewish or otherwise - or social work. Others become rabbis or other professionals - doctors or lawyers - but all with the idea of service to the Jewish community."
As to why Yeroham and Dimona were chosen as host communities, Brander laughs. "Yeroham was so poor, its city government so corrupt, the Knesset actually voted to fire the mayor. Four years ago, there were so many people below the poverty line, so many unemployed, with the government in such bad shape, that we decided this was the perfect place to start. We believed that if we concentrated all YU's resources - students studying social work, to be rabbis or creative educators - we could make a difference. Our goal was never to make the campers orthodox or even religious, but rather to empower them, raise their self-esteem and make life better. Whether any of them decide to go to shul on Shabbat is irrelevant. All we wanted was to help them live purposeful lives."
Today, Brander says Yeroham's new mayor, Amram Mitzna, is Counterpoint's biggest fan. "The municipality loves us. Mayor Mitzna told me himself that one of the things they lacked was role models, something else we've got. Our young counselors have fun and play sports with the campers, but still help them grow intellectually. In both communities, the municipalities are our full partners."
The reason Shoshana Blechner chose to become a Counterpoint counselor was to have the chance to really be involved with a community in Israel. "I wanted to be a part of a development town," the YU junior from Brookline, MA said. "I'm definitely planning on [making] aliya myself, so I didn't want a tour. I wanted something where I could really get to know the people, to be a part of the community."
The Presentation Night Fashion Show was part of Blechner's doing. "With the girls, we did something different every day. We did tie-dye, playing American music in the background. Some sewed beads on their tie-dye shirts, others made perfume, jewelry, wall plaques and cards. Then on the last night we had a fashion show and everyone modeled something they'd made. It takes a lot of confidence to get up there on that stage, with a real spotlight, walk and then pose. It was a big accomplishment for them all."
At mid-point, Blechner realized how much the campers were enjoying themselves. "I was very close to one boy who was just going into 9th grade. He was having trouble with his English. We had an exercise where they'd write down what they did yesterday, what they would do tomorrow, that kind of thing. Then we asked them to write about their perfect day. 'Write whatever you want,' I told them. 'You can go to the moon, to America and Australia on the same day, whatever you dream of.' They finished. I looked at the papers and saw that this boy had written about going to English class in the morning, and then to breakdancing in the afternoon. I said, 'No, this was supposed to be about your perfect day, something you dream of doing. Not your real day.' He just looked at me and said, 'That's what I did. Coming to camp is my perfect day.'"
"That's the kind of thing that convinced me I'm coming back here to live," Blechner said. "This summer opened my eyes to more than just living in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. It deepened my love for Israel - all of Israel, not just the center. I don't know how I'm going to do it, or how or where I'll live, but I know I'm coming back here somewhere."
ANOTHER BROOKLINE YU student is Nate Jaret, 20, a sophomore who studied at an Old City Yeshiva for a year. Jaret laughs when asked about choosing community service instead of earning money. "Right, that's an issue," he says. "I'm going to have to find some way to fix that. I worked part of the summer as a mashgiach [kashrut supervisor], but what I expected to gain from this program was worth more than money. Israel is a big part of my life and this was a fantastic opportunity."
Jaret explained some logistics: YU rented three apartments, one for men, one for women, and a third that served as a general meeting place, but also housed a few men. In the morning, half went to Dimona and half stayed in Yeroham. Everyone would return at 3 p.m. for more informal activities. Breakdancing was part of Jaret's chugim.
"I didn't know anything about break dancing," he says. "Now, I can do enough to dance at weddings, at least. One of the counselors had been breakdancing since ninth grade, so he led the classes with the help of one of the campers who was a good dancer too. On TV it looks absolutely impossible, but it isn't a tremendously difficult thing to learn. That made it a good class because it was a quick way of getting these kids to feel successful at something."
Baseball also fell within Jaret's bailiwick. "They really got into it," he says. "You can't condense six years of little league into a few weeks, but they loved it. They didn't need to hit a home run to be happy - just hitting the ball into the infield was exciting enough."
Shelby Weltz decided to apply for a counselor's position when a friend who'd done the program last year told her about it. "She looked me in the eye and said, 'Shelby, this will change your life.' I take what she says seriously, so I applied," the 19-year-old NYU student from Holliswood, NY said.
So did it change her life? "Yes, but it was more that it confirmed ideas I already had. As an American, spending a year in a Jerusalem seminary gives you an extremely romantic view of Israeli society. Counterpoint twists all your perceptions - it was just great. I'd wanted to study psychology but everyone advised me to reconsider, saying it's hard to earn a living with psychology. But now I know I'm going to do it anyway. This is exactly what I want to do, work with kids like this. Psychology isn't just about being a good listener. It's about being a good educator. This is what I want."
Drumming and dance were Weltz's assignments. "The drumming was fun," she says. "There were 11 in our group, and everyone had a drum. None of us except the director knew anything about drumming, but it was the ultimate 'team' thing. Everyone had to drum at exactly the same time. It was good training."
While the boys were break dancing, the girls had another dance option. "It was very modern," Weltz says, "part classic hip hop and part jazz. One girl didn't like the dance chug, so we broke off. I found a piano in the community center, and we played duets. That's the point: to help kids find what they want."
Aliya is in the future for Weltz, too. "The parental unit commands me to finish my education in the States, but then I see myself living and working right here in the Negev. My kids will grow up as a part of all this. Maybe someday I'll be able to tell them, 'One summer I worked at a camp that was right here.'"
AYOL AND Shoshana Samuels constituted the 'dream team' of the crowd. As singles, they were both counselors in the first Counterpoint four years ago. "We fell in love in Yeroham," Shoshana laughs. "Before I came on Counterpoint, both my now-husband and I had worked on a different program in Honduras. We were just friends then, but that second time, when we were both here in the Negev, that's when we fell in love. We were married right afterwards, and now we live in Beersheba. Ayol is beginning his second year of medical school, I'm teaching and we have a baby on the way. We love it here in the Negev. It's out of the mainstream - that's difficult for some people, but for us, it's a breath of fresh air."
This year, the Samuels served as head counselors. "Being in charge of the counselors was very different from being a counselor myself," Shoshana says. "We recruited the campers, did all the organizational work, helped the counselors with their prep sessions and generally made everything run smoothly. Our perspective was different: We saw how both the campers and the counselors were learning and growing."
Samuels admits she had some qualms about being responsible for so many teenagers. "I was a little scared," she says. "It's not an easy age. But things went pretty well. We had a couple of disciplinary issues, nothing too serious. One kid took a marker and gave us a little graffiti. A funnier incident was when we were out in the field and saw a stray horse. One of the campers jumped on and rode around for awhile. He was an excellent rider, but that was still no-no."
The CIT program, the 'Counselors in Training' was especially worthwhile, she said. "This is the first year we were able to have local kids who'd grown up with the camp, come back and serve as junior counselors. That was a great idea - by working with this year's campers, they saw themselves as they themselves had been four years ago. They were a very valuable addition to the staff."
The proof came during a bonfire that had been organized out in the desert. "We built a big fire and were making the campers their first s'mores. Then some uninvited kids came by - they were of camper age, but weren't in the camp. We couldn't really ask them to leave - we were out in an open area. Not that we really wanted to kick them out anyway. You know you're doing a good job when people come from the outside without asking.
"It was all okay until one of the new kids pulled out a cigarette and lit up. That was absolutely against the rules. But one of our CIT's was a smoker himself. We'd warned him he was never, ever, to smoke around the campers, and he'd agreed, so I thought he might be the right person to handle this. I motioned to him - 'Tell the kid to stop smoking.' He nodded and went over to the new kid, putting his arm around his shoulder. I couldn't hear what he said, but in a moment, the smoker put out the cigarette. The CIT handled it absolutely perfectly. The cigarette was gone. No one was embarrassed. Seeing that kind of conduct in a former camper was one of the highlights of the summer."
As they all pack up and head back home for their own back-to-school plans, every counselor brings back memories. Not just the counselors, either. Brander recalls a moment he'll never forget from last summer's program.
"It was Presentation Night, the final program," he recalls. "We had 21 YU counselors in a room filled with Israeli parents. You could count the kippot in the room with two hands, with several fingers left over. There were people born in Russia, Ethiopia, India and all over Israel, but they were all clapping for everyone's children. Many of them couldn't communicate with each other, let alone with our counselors, but as each of us applauded everyone's achievements, I was very moved. For just one single moment, we all realized how much we as a people share."
The YU 'Counterpoint Israel' program is supported by the Zusman Family (Yeroham Program), the Blumenthal Family (Dimona Program) and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. For more information, contact Yeshiva University, www.yu.edu