Making an important point

40 students from Yeshiva University, New York, spend 10 days of their winter break as volunteer teachers for children in Israel’s periphery.

Pupils at a school in Kiryat Gat learn about Diaspora communities around the world with guest teachers from New York’s Yeshiva University. (photo credit: YESHIVA UNIVERSITY)
Pupils at a school in Kiryat Gat learn about Diaspora communities around the world with guest teachers from New York’s Yeshiva University.
(photo credit: YESHIVA UNIVERSITY)
On a Tuesday morning in January, a bubbly group of eighth-grade girls in Kiryat Malachi’s Amit junior high school were busy exploring a world before the advent of the Internet and email. The assignment given to these students, mostly children of immigrants from Ethiopia, was to design postage stamps with pictures and words on them representing who they were and how they viewed their lives in Israel.
As per the assignment, the stamps – if actually licked and attached to letters, perhaps sent to a Jewish friend in the Diaspora – would offer a window into their world as Israeli children of immigrants and members of the larger Israeli and Jewish community.
The stamp project wasn’t part of the school’s regular curriculum but was one of the lessons presented by more than 40 visiting college students representing New York’s Yeshiva University, who had dedicated 10 days of their winter vacation to serve as volunteer teachers working with children from communities in Israel’s periphery.
Known as the Counterpoint Israel Winter Camp and part of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, the winter break program, now in its third year, allowed the students to touch the lives of 850 teens in Kiryat Malachi, as well as Kiryat Gat and Dimona, aiming to empower them through a curriculum focused on English enrichment and self-exploration through art.
For several hours each morning during the 10-day camp, the teens’ regular teachers stepped aside, and the YU students took over, lesson plans in hand.
In addition to the stamp project, the focus of some of the other sessions highlighted the relationship between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, allowing the students to learn about diverse global Jewish communities, while also giving them the chance to delve into their families’ personal histories before coming to Israel.
DURING MY visit to a Counterpoint Israel session at Kiryat Gat’s Gruss junior high school, a class of 18 eighthgrade boys were tackling questions such as “What does Israel mean to me?” The children cut out pictures from everyday life in Israel – a cup of Aroma coffee, the Western Wall, a soldier – and pasted them onto the cut-out of a face, selecting the images symbolizing how they see themselves fitting into life in Israel. They then had the opportunity to share their projects with their classmates.
Throughout the sessions, as the YU students gave instructions in English, the regular teachers roamed around the classroom, offering to help should anything in the assignment be unclear in this foreign tongue – perhaps familiar but not fluent to most.
According to Gila Rockman, Counterpoint Israel’s codirector, the most important thing the teens take away from the experience is achieving “self-confidence and a love for who they are, regardless of their educational backgrounds or their race.” She says that “bringing in these cool American university students and having a good time is special and can help change their mind-set about what they accomplish in life.”
Rockman says that in addition to the work being carried out in the classroom, the YU students were assigned to run after-school educational programs in conjunction with the various youth groups in each community, as well as leading Shabbat activities.
One of the student teachers is 21-year-old Teaneck, New Jersey, native Schmooze (Sam) Weinstein, a junior year accounting major at YU’s Sy Syms School of Business.
Weinstein, who is back as a Counterpoint Israel teacher for the third winter and serves as a head counselor, feels that the program not only allows him to give but “I have learned a whole lot from these kids as well.”
He says that he has come to understand a tremendous amount about the backgrounds and culture of the children. “I don’t view them as campers but as friends. We are in touch on Facebook and on WhatsApp [text message app], and I plan to keep in touch with them throughout the year.”
Tani Staiman, a 20-year-old Stern College sophomore also from Teaneck, is serving as a student teacher on the program for the first time. She says she finds the experience “a very productive way of spending my winter break, while being able to give back.” Staiman, who admits that she now has a “whole new respect for teachers,” says she was “excited to see the project come to life” after serving as a CJF intern on her campus last year and hopes that she will be back to teach again next winter if given the option.
SEEING A stranger in their mid, several of the girls from the Amit School gathered around this reporter and were willing to share their thoughts on the program. Fourteenyear- old Eden, whose family made aliya from Ethiopia when she was a baby, said she wished the classes were held at least once a week throughout the school year. She said that the learning was fun and felt that her English has improved.
Thirteen-year-old Smadar, whose parents made aliya from Ethiopia, agreed. She said she enjoyed the Counterpoint activities and learning about Jewish communities outside Israel.
Ohad Asraf, the Kiryat Malachi Amit School’s programming coordinator, isn’t surprised by this enthusiasm. “Sometimes learning can be dry,” he says, adding that “This program is something special, which doesn’t call on them [the pupils] to spit back information like parrots. It’s something they won’t forget.”
He feels that the lessons are effective in terms of helping the teenagers polish their English and helping them connect with the Diaspora. “Some children didn’t even realize there were Jews in the US,” he says.
Kiva Rabinsky is program director of the CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education and co-director of Counterpoint. He says that in addition to the winter programming, the CJF has been facilitating a summer version of Counterpoint as an educational enrichment program at schools in Israel for the past seven years. He says that all Counterpoint programming is approved and warmly welcomed not only by the schools but also by the local Department of Education in each city.
Rabinsky adds that he believes the program benefits the Israeli teens, as well as the YU student teachers. “In both its summer and winter camp formats, Counterpoint fosters an environment in which young underprivileged Israeli teens feel loved, accomplished and comfortable enough to open up to new people and experiences. And it gives our YU students an opportunity to hone their leadership skills, while taking on the role of Jewish agents of change.”