Linden rabbi forges bonds with Israeli campers

Linden rabbi forges bonds with Israeli campers

Federation helps fund program for children in its sister community

Rabbi Joshua Hess of Linden with a young Israeli at the Counterpoint summer camp in Arad.
Rabbi Joshua Hess of Linden with a young Israeli at the Counterpoint summer camp in Arad.

The new Counterpoint Israel summer camp in Arad ended only last week, but already parents in and around the Negev town are clamoring to get their children onto the application list for next summer.

The camp — run by Yeshiva University’s service learning program and funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — ran from July 12 to Aug. 2.

It brought together underprivileged teenagers from Arad and staff, mostly students from across North America. Arad is a sister city to the Central federation and several other federations under the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 program.

Rabbi Joshua Hess of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden worked with the Arad camp and YU’s camp in Dimona, providing religious and secular teaching. It was an experience, he told NJJN, that he will treasure for the rest of his life.

Already there is talk of doubling the camp’s size next year. In a letter to the community as camp ended, Hess reported that the P2K organizers told the staff “about daily calls from parents begging and pleading to enroll their children into the already full camp!”

In an e-mail to NJJN, he said that the campers — youngsters from Israeli, Moroccan, and Russian backgrounds — were mostly secular, with a traditional connection to Judaism. Only two wore kipot. The 12 student staff members were all Modern Orthodox.

Every day the camp focused on a different theme. The topics ranged from Internet security to charity and justice, exile and redemption to self-confidence. It was his job, Hess said, to monitor the classrooms and make sure things were running smoothly and to provide individualized teaching for campers who were having difficulty with the topic. He also got to play basketball with them.

A couple of weeks in, one Sunday and Monday, a few of the kids who didn’t want to take part in the regular activities were given the option to study Torah with Hess. “Surprisingly,” he said, “both times the kids chose to study with me! They were engaged and excited to learn; and, amazingly, the following day they begged me to continue to study with them! It made my day.”

He had a spiritual experience with the staff too. The first Shabbat — which started with davening on a nearby mountaintop at sunset — was “one of the more meaningful and inspirational Shabbatot that I have ever been a part of.”

Hess, who has studied in Israel and visited a number of times, said the camp gave him a different view of Israel. He wrote, “This is the first time that I interacted in a meaningful way with Israeli children. I learned that while there are some cultural differences between Israeli and American youth, there are so many similarities.

“We listen to the same music, watch the same movies, love sports and dancing, and are proud of our heritage….”

He said, “For me, this experience has been nothing short of transformational. I have seen with my own eyes how much impact a small group of motivated Jewish Americans can make on the lives of young Israelis and how we can connect with them on such a deep level.

“While we may physically live 6,000 miles apart, spiritually and emotionally they are our next door neighbors.”

‘Positive interactions’

From the camp he was going on to spend time with family in Israel and to take a much anticipated trip to Budapest with his wife. But saying goodbye to the camp staff was difficult. “I was truly blessed to be surrounded by such bright, committed, and fun students,” he said. “They taught me a lot, and I hope that I was able to give back to them in proportion to what they gave me.”

Amy Cooper, the Central federation’s associate executive vice president, saw the camp in action when she visited Arad a few weeks ago. She told NJJN, “Counterpoint is a great example of how Partnership connects Jews in New Jersey and Jews in Israel in meaningful ways. It was great working with YU. They understood what we want to accomplish through P2K and worked with us to involve as many people as possible from our community and other P2K communities.

“Hopefully,” Cooper said, “once the counselors, teachers, and the rabbi are back in the States, they will be emissaries of Counterpoint and P2K.”

Hess’s impact was much appreciated in the Arad camp. In her e-mail to NJJN, Sarah Bond, a Counterpoint counselor from Elizabeth, said, “Campers who were unable to sit through class or needed a break from other activities would hang out with Rabbi Hess and learn Tanach [Bible] with him.

“As a staff we all enjoyed the rabbi’s presence in the camp. He gave us shiurim [lessons] as well as advice. However, we most enjoyed watching his positive interactions with the campers and the noticeable effect he had on their view of Judaism and religion as a whole.”

Shuki Taylor, the director of YU’s Department of Experiential Jewish Education, said, “Rabbi Hess enlightened and inspired the YU students with words of Torah on a daily basis, providing them with an authentic Jewish context to their volunteer experience. At the same time, he broadened the scope and the impact area of Counterpoint Israel’s Arad program by sharing e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter updates with hundreds of Jews in Linden, the greater NJ Jewish community, and across North America.”

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