Eliana Sohn had been to Israel four times before, including a gap year of study in Jerusalem, but her experience this summer has forged a new kind of connection.
As a counselor at a summer camp in Arad — the community twinned with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 program — she came to know well the young campers, their parents, and other residents and explored the “trials and triumphs” of life in the Negev town.
In e-mail answers to questions from NJ Jewish News, the 21-year-old student from Elizabeth wrote: “Just as I feel at home in Jerusalem, I now feel at home in Arad. It’s truly a blessing to feel so deeply connected to a place I barely knew about a month ago.”
Sohn is one of 34 students from North America, South Africa, and New Zealand chosen to participate in Yeshiva University’s Counterpoint Israel program July 12-Aug. 18, working as counselors at summer camps with youngsters from Arad, Dimona, and the Yemin Orde Youth Village.
This summer marks the sixth year of the month-long program, which has the counselors learning through service and research and which — according to the university — “aims to empower the next generation of Israeli youth via an action-packed, Jewish values-driven summer camp experience.”
This is the first time Counterpoint has run a camp in Arad, serving disadvantaged area teenagers. The Central federation and its partner federations in the P2K cluster, through campaign donations, provided funding for the camp. In appreciation, YU made a point of including 14 students from Central and other NJ communities. It also enlisted the help of Rabbi Joshua Hess of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden as rabbinical leader of the Arad camp.
Also for the first time this year, the program has been reshaped so that the participants can earn graduate-level credits. According to YU, it is “the world’s first institution to offer an accredited program for Jewish service-learning.”
Sohn, whose goal is to be a Jewish educator, is a student at SUNY Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY. She said that with an awareness of how experiential learning can expand her capabilities, she has worked in several Jewish day schools and coordinates events for Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities.
Acquiring more of that kind of experience, at the Arad camp she taught English to the young campers and engaged in art, dance, and music with them. She said, “As a Jewish educator, it is integral that I learn and connect as much as I can with Jews with different backgrounds. This was a fantastic way of building bonds with Israelis (specifically in Arad) that I never would have made otherwise. I really got to see the campers’ personalities emerge through their projects. A lot of amazing conversations came from chatting over their ideas.”
She added: “I would like to give a huge thank you to the federation for making this program possible. Counterpoint has only strengthened my desire to be a Jewish educator and take a frontal role in the Jewish community.”
This week Sohn was about to leave Arad to begin a stint with Counterpoint Yemin Orde, teaching teenagers from the Yemin Orde Youth Village — which was damaged by the devastating Carmel forest fire last December — on the Yeshiva University Israel Campus in Jerusalem. She said that though she was tired from her work in Arad, she was just as excited about this next challenge.