Yossi Mason had been to Israel four times before — on family visits with his parents and to study for a year at a yeshiva — but, he said, the five weeks he spent there this summer gave him a new love for the country, and for Arad in particular.
The Negev communities of Arad and Tamar are partnered with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey community through the Partnership 2000 program. Through the offices of the federation, the 21-year-old from Elizabeth participated in the Kefiada program run under the auspices of P2K, working for a month at a summer camp for young children in Arad.
Mason, who is on an accelerated track to complete in three years a degree in the science of physiology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick couldn’t go to Israel last year because he was taking courses, so he was especially eager to go this year. “I really wanted to go to Israel this summer, but I didn’t know how I could manage it,” he told NJ Jewish News soon after his return in early August. “Then my mother saw the ad for Kefiada placed in the paper by the federation,” he said.
He was one of eight young people from New Jersey working at the camp. Their airfares and accommodations were paid for, and they were given a stipend for food.
Mason and three other guys shared an apartment provided by the program, while the four girl participants shared a house. “We had the better deal,” he claimed. “We were really close to the camp.” The Kefiada counselors ate lunch together each day at one of the restaurants in town; the program covered the bill.
He was the only Orthodox person in the group and the only one wearing a kipa, but, he said, the friendships formed were among the best aspects of the trip. “I made it really clear right at the beginning that even if I don’t agree with someone else’s choices, I respect their right to make them, and that I wasn’t going to judge anyone by how observant they were,” Mason said.
With that out the way, he said, the Kefiada counselors had some really interesting conversations about their beliefs — like about the Torah, “whether it is divinely inspired or divinely given.” It was as much a chance for Mason to learn about secular and Reform and Conservative views as for his peers to learn from him. It delighted him too to see that by the end of their stay, a number of them were as enamored of Israel as he is.
For a boy schooled at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth and brought up in a segregated social setting, the casual contact with the girls might have been awkward. Mason has a sister, as well as an older brother, but she was a teenager when he was born. But he said that having been at Rutgers for two years, he was already comfortable with such contact.
He formed equally good friendships with the Israeli counselors who worked with them, and with the people who were his host family. The Yemenite couple, with five sons and a daughter, had him over for two of his four Shabbatot in Arad, and for many meals in between.
He said, “This family was without a doubt one of the most welcoming, hospitable, and pleasant families I’ve ever met. Being able to spend time with this family and really immersing myself in their Israeli/Yemenite culture was an integral part of my experience in Arad.”
With camp closed on Fridays and Saturdays, the counselors got to visit with family and to go on some field trips. They camped at the base of Masada and climbed the mountain at dawn, dined one night at a Bedouin community, and had a two-day visit to Jerusalem.
For Mason, much of that was familiar from his previous visits. But Arad was new to him, and though the town is small and not much to look at, he said, he found himself delighted by it. “It’s so peaceful and quiet, and I felt incredibly safe.” It gets very hot, he said, but the air is clear, and at night, when it cools down, the skies are extraordinarily clear. “The nights are more beautiful than words can describe,” he said.
He was clear before this trip that he wants to settle in Israel once he has qualified, but now, he said, he knows where in the country he might want to live: “in Arad.”