As a first-time staff member on Counterpoint Israel, Yeshiva University’s annual project to run educational summer camps for underprivileged children in Israeli development towns, I did not know what to expect. Nevertheless, I tabled my nerves and excitement and began orientation, gearing up for the weeks to come. Orientation was aimed at preparing us for the challenges we could expect to face in Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat, Arad and Dimona. The numerous sessions covered a variety of topics with a significant time spent on helping us better understand the population with which we would be working.
Kiryat Malachi, we were told, had virtually the lowest average income in Israel. A population primarily composed of Ethiopian immigrant families, Kiryat Malachi is not the kind of neighborhood frequented by gap year students. Through various sessions with upper staff members, it became clear that many of the children who would attend the camp were in difficult financial situations. Due to a confluence of factors, including large family size and practical challenges facing immigrants, many of the families were unable to even afford proper meals for their children.
However, despite what felt like a large cultural gap between me and my soon-to-be campers, I was determined to connect with them and make a real difference in their lives.
The first day of camp arrived with a bang. Campers flooded in with an excited look on their faces, and frequently, highly interesting hairstyles to boot. After a long introduction session, we jumped right into our very first English session followed by outdoor activities and sports, making for a great first day of camp.
As I reflected on that first day, I realized that the campers did, indeed, have a complex set of personal and familial circumstances, but I felt as if these intricacies were virtually unexpressed behind their regular personalities as children and teenagers. These campers, I thought, were not too different from the North American campers with whom I had worked previously. To these Israeli campers, Facebook, Instagram, and Lionel Messi needed no translation; the powers of a smile and a warm greeting necessitated no explanation. I discovered that despite the fact that there is what differentiates a North American camper from his Israeli counterpart, there is even more that unites them. The rambunctious nature of a camper and his or her genuine desire to have fun is simply ubiquitous, no matter the cultural, economic, or social divide.
Moreover, atop these conventional commonalities, I realized that two members of the Jewish nation have a latent bond that surpasses all other differences. Though on the day-to-day plane there may appear to be variations in custom, these variations do not negate the underlying relationship between Jews, a relationship that is felt no matter the origins, cultures, or present statuses of the Jews in question.
Even the differences in custom between the campers and me proved no matter. The further I studied the customs and culture that seemed to separate us, the less I saw them as actual divisions. My interest in the campers’ culture was met with enthusiasm as they explained the numerous customs observed in their homes, along with the various foods served on their tables. As my appreciation and understanding of the nuances woven into the cultural fabric of the campers rose, so the barriers between us fell.
Often, the disparity between customs and cultures seems vast. However, in the Jewish world, our identity and sense of peoplehood can transverse even the most ominous of gaps. I will never forget my Counterpoint Israel experience, one in which the conjoining of two different cultures within a single summer program highlighted a universal truth: the divisions that exist between us pale in comparison to the elements that unite us.
Yonatan Mehlman is a resident of Woodmere, NY and a student at Yeshiva University. This summer, Yonatan and 32 other exceptional undergraduate students from YU ran the ninth annual “Counterpoint Israel Program,” specially-designed educational camps for 300 Israeli campers from varied socio-economic backgrounds in Arad, Dimona, Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi.
Yesterday, one of my 9th grade campers came up to me today to tell me thank you for coming from America and giving of myself to teach English. He said because of us counselors, he wants to go to America after the army to teach Hebrew. Every day after camp he spends two hours practicing his English. During the school year, he also spends several hours after school working on his English. Because of his character and dedication, my co-counselors and I nominated him for the Camper of the Summer and Excellence in English Awards, as well as most likely to be an ambassador for Israel. My campers have so much potential, which is often overlooked just because they live in a development town. I hope they realize how much we see in them and how much we know they are capable of, and internalize it.
Today, the camper that came up to me yesterday, came up to me again to ask me to translate the letters the counselors and I personalized for them about their unique qualities. This camper told me that I am a good woman, always patient, and really care about helping people improve. They showed me a picture of me in front of the class calm and ready to teach, and gave a specific example of English mistakes they have since corrected because of my pointing them out. Not only am I impressed with my campers’ maturity and dedication, but their commitment to showing thanks. Thank you Dimona, and my campers, for opening up your city to me. Thank you for opening my eyes to all of the talent and potential that lies here. I wish everybody would see it.