Amira Mandelbaum had been to Israel eight times before, but this summer she had a very different experience of the country.
She and fellow Highland Park resident Avital Chizhik were among 34 other 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 teaches the counselors 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 Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex 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 Middlesex 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.”
Mandelbaum, a rising sophomore at New York University, is studying psychology. Through Counterpoint, she has been working with the Arad teenagers, teaching them English, and carrying out projects designed to boost their skills and confidence. In answer to e-mailed questions from NJ Jewish News, she wrote that she was “blown away by the improvements which occurred right before my eyes. It was an unbelievable experience.”
Mandelbaum comes from an Orthodox family. As a high school student, she attended Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, and her family belongs to Ahavas Achim, an Orthodox congregation in Highland Park. Her previous visits to Israel — whether on vacation or to study — placed her in Orthodox company. This time, the experience was broader — as she had hoped.
She said, “It has definitely matched up to what I had been looking for. I was welcomed fully into Israeli culture and had a chance to work with Israeli teenagers in a fun and intimate setting. I generally haven’t had the opportunity to interact with Israeli hilonim,” or secular Jews.
Counterpoint, she said, “allowed me to blur the divide between secular and religious Israelis that I’ve experienced in the past. I found that to be a very meaningful opportunity and one which gives me hope for the future of the Jewish state.”
For Chizhik, a junior majoring in journalism at Stern College for Women in New York, it was her second visit to Israel and her first opportunity to tour and get to know regular Israelis. The previous time, three years ago, she came with the journalism political advocacy program Write On For Israel.
This summer, she had a very full schedule. In addition to her Counterpoint role as a camp counselor, she worked as a research assistant for one of her professors studying Holocaust literature, and made progress on her senior thesis, which is focused on Israeli literature.
Chizhik told NJJN, “I wanted to sign up for this program because I hoped to see Israel in a new — and unconventional — light. I wanted to interact with Israeli youth, to see what the future holds for us, and, if possible, to contribute whatever I could.”
She added, “I can say most confidently that my campers may have taught me more than I was able to teach them: patience, open-mindedness, warmth. I saw each child individually, each with his or her own passions, talents, and exciting future about to open up, if only given the chance.
“Being in Israel has been a life-changing experience on so many levels — as a Jew, as an aspiring journalist, and as a student,” said Chizhik. “I’m incredibly grateful to Yeshiva University and its NJ partners for making this learning opportunity possible.”