Each summer, Rabbi Joshua Hess waves goodbye to his wife and their four children as they head to vacation and visit family in Israel. He stays behind to deal with his duties as religious leader of Congregation Anshe Chesed, the Modern Orthodox synagogue in Linden.
This time he will be near them in Israel. He has been asked by Yeshiva University to serve as rabbinical leader with its Counterpoint Israel summer camp in Arad. For three weeks in July his congregants will get by without him while he provides religious guidance to disadvantaged Israeli teenagers and conducts seminars for the staff members.
“I’ll be serving as a kind of religious role model, providing guidance on kashrut and halachic issues,” he said. “I’ll also be doing programs with the staff. There will be 12 of them, students from YU and from the Central area, as well as some Israelis.”
Yeshiva University, which runs a number of summer programs in Israel, knew that Arad has had a long relationship with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey through the Partnership 2000 program and asked its leaders to recommend a rabbi for the camp.
They suggested Hess, who just last week received the federation’s Rabbinical Leadership Award (see related article). “It was a great honor that the federation bestowed upon me,” he said of the award.
He said he appreciated the recommendation for the Arad position both because of the opportunity to go to Israel, and the challenge the job presents.
Federation executive vice president Stanley Stone said that YU had made a point of including young people from the Central area to serve as counselors, and he was very appreciative of them also seeking a rabbi from the area. “Rabbi Hess was a natural choice,” he said. “He has a broad perspective. He has played an active part in the Orthodox community, and he is highly respected and admired by colleagues from the other streams. He has the ability to work with students from different backgrounds and to interface with the kids and their families in Arad.”
Hess, who took up his post in Linden in October 2009, said he will be working with students from eighth through 11th grade from low-income homes. The activities in the camp are designed to improve their vocational and English-language skills.
He said that for the youngsters the camp “can be a transformative experience, as they go through a transitional period in their lives.”
Going to Israel is, for Hess, a homecoming of sorts. The rabbi, who grew up in Los Angeles, spent three years at a yeshiva there after high school. His parents and five of his six siblings have since made aliya and now live in Israel, so it will be a chance to see them as well as his wife, Naava, and the children.
It will be his first visit to Arad but, he said, he has been hearing good things about the Negev town from members of the community, many of whom have visited it with missions or as summer volunteers themselves. He said he is finding out more about the area from the federation’s Israeli emissary, Abir Maleyanker, who is from Arad.
Counterpoint Israel is a summer program run by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future. It brings students to Israel to create a summer day camp for high-schoolers in developing towns in Israel. In addition to the Arad facility, there are CJF camps in Yerucham and Dimona. According to the center’s website, the goal “is to empower the Israeli teens by discussing with them important and relevant issues pertinent to their daily lives, like substance abuse and peer pressure, while teaching them English so they can develop those crucial language skills.”