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To Be a Part of the People of Israel

I walked into the synagogue, as I have on hundreds of other Friday nights throughout my life. Except this time, I was quickly approached by an elderly man wielding a six-foot staff who immediately questioned whether I was in the right place, or whether I was looking for another synagogue. After he confirmed that this was the Ethiopian synagogue, I affirmed that indeed, it was my intended destination. He then asked my name, origin, and purpose in being there. After explaining that I merely desired to pray the evening service together with them, I was welcomed warmly.

Twenty minutes later, I well understood the unexpected interview I originally received. Not only did all the men in the sanctuary carry tall staffs, but both men and women were dressed in white robes and turbans, the traditional Ethiopian Sabbath garb.  Furthermore, as each member stepped in, he slowed his pace considerably, giving a quasi-bow or polite nod to each person he passed on the way to his seat. I then witnessed something I had previously only seen during Yom Kippur services:the practice of bowing on the ground, fully prostrate. To top it all off, the service was conducted only in Amharic, a native Ethiopian language.

That Friday night comprised my sharpest point of encounter on Yeshiva University’s summer program, which I staffed together with thirty fellow undergraduate students, appropriately termed Counterpoint Israel. When I signed up for a program whose primary focus is running summer camps for disadvantaged children in Israel’s southern development towns, namely Kiryat Malachi, Kiryat Gat, Dimona, and Arad, I knew there would be numerous novel experiences. Nonetheless, I was not properly prepared for, and did not accurately imagine, the extent of these encounters, in terms of both their range and their intensity.

In truth, though, no one could possibly have adequately primed me for the experience; it is something so foreign to a privileged American youth that words simply do not hold the power to convey what it is. Counterpoint needs to be experienced; it needs to be lived.

After a week of orientation attempting to impress upon us what a difference we were to make on the kids in our camps and upon the cities as a whole, we still didn’t get it. At least, not until we got off the bus in Kiryat Malachi only to see our returning counselors being mobbed by their former campers. Not until, when walking through the park our first night, several youths randomly came up to me asking for the head counselor, “Where’s Shmooz? I haven’t seen him in so long!” Not until the checkout lady in the grocery store commented our first day there, “You are with the camp from America? Thank you so much for being here; it gives us so much.”

Our first day of camp was eye-opening. Though I had visited Israel many times previously, including multiple summers and even two full years of study, not once had I been to Kiryat Malachi, or any other development town for that matter. Rarely, if ever, did I come across residents of these towns, let alone interact with them.

This is a part of the Jewish nation which, regrettably, many of us find to be unworthy of our time, money, or energies. It is no surprise, therefore, that walking into a classroom filled with second-generation immigrants from Ethiopia and Morocco made quite an impact on me.

On Counterpoint, the first part of our day was to teach English, the gateway to higher education and numerous other fields of opportunity in Israel, yet a subject in which these kids underachieve. When camp began, many campers did not express life dreams or aspirations beyond playing soccer indefinitely. I was astonished to see how disconnected they felt from the rest of Israel, as if they were not deserving enough to go to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Many counselors were intensely exposed for the first time to kids whose homes are not necessarily a safe space, kids who are afraid to eat in public, and kids who are severely lacking in the presence of an older figure to see the good in them, encourage them, and propel them forward. It did not take too keen an eye to realize that some of them never receive a nourishing meal on an average day. I, for example, was witness to a kid who would not take food at lunchtime, only to sneak a leftover sandwich from the teacher’s lounge at the end of the day.

Though in the beginning we may have harbored some doubt as to how we could meaningfully contribute to the lives of these kids and compensate for the deficiencies in their environments, as we prepared to leave Israel, no doubt remained. Our presence was a wonderful chance for them to develop their English, but, in truth, it was much more than that. Although our campers thankfully walked away from the summer with better English, they more importantly walked away free of the fear they previously carried when learning English. They walked away with a positive, fun experience with English-speakers and, consequently, with the motivation to immerse themselves in the language in the future. Some kids even refused to be spoken to in Hebrew, preferring to struggle with English in an effort to improve.

Additionally, our campers walked away with a sense of purpose in learning English, with the notion that they are, in fact, capable of acquiring valuable life skills which, in turn, will enable them to be effective contributors to society. They began to shed the unfortunate association ingrained within them, namely that Ethiopians are forever condemned to live on the fringes of Israeli society.

Counterpoint does a supreme job of providing these physically and emotionally malnourished kids a context within which they thrive as never before. On the physical side, the program provides a hearty breakfast and lunch for the kids. Contrary to the initial reaction that this is a nice, but inconsequential side benefit of the program, it is anything but. It was shocking to come across kids who would consistently refuse breakfast and lunch because they were “still full” from the “early breakfast” they did not have at home. It was more shocking still to discover that same kid sitting outside on a faraway bench, munching away in solitude, or perhaps with one friend. And it was doubly gratifying to see that by the end of just two weeks, the number of kids who acted like this had dropped drastically.

Emotionally, the program provides these kids—first and foremost—with us, American college students. To the underprivileged teenager in one of these towns, Americans are not simply foreigners or people they get to meet at tourist attractions; we are exciting, glamorous, and sensational.

Somewhat surprisingly, Americans never cross their paths, because no one wants to visit their perceived dinky—yet actually quite nice—development towns. Even their regular English teachers are not English speakers! As such, simply by virtue of being American, we were graciously welcomed into their personal lives, which gave us the opportunity to imbue them with a more positive outlook.

This infusion of happiness takes place during breakfast, lunch, and other occasions of downtime, but it is particularly enhanced by the framework of activities that Counterpoint provides. Every day after the English lesson, multiple activities are offered, including dance, art, sports, drums, martial arts, breakdance, and more, each guided by a professional teacher.

Again,rather than these simply being nice activities, they held much more significance for the campers, many of whom struggle academically. Because these kids have neither the financial means to acquire the equipment nor the instruction to advance their talents in other areas, Counterpoint represents the one opportunity for them to do so. Beyond that, given their academic difficulties, Counterpoint becomes the rare instance in which they are given a platform to demonstrate that, in fact, they are gifted and, if only people would believe in them, they can excel.

This was illustrated most beautifully during the closing event during which, on a stage in front of hundreds, the campers performed what they learned the previous few weeks. Many of us know the gratification that comes along with a round of applause; for them, it was priceless.

Counterpoint also took care to deepen our cultural experience outside of camp. At times, this took the form of meeting Ethiopian farmers and, after hearing about the charming touches of the Ethiopian meal, enjoying some injara, a traditional Ethiopian food. Sometimes it meant visiting David Ben-Gurion’s grave, learning about his vision to populate the Negev, and understanding our part in enabling that to happen. Other times it meant learning the Amharic alphabet and proceeding to paint a decorative plaque with our names in Amharic.

These experiences served a dual function. On the one hand, they served to broaden our personal cultural horizons and deepen our connection to the heritages of Jews previously foreign to us. On the other hand, they provided wonderful insights that we took back to camp the next day, tying us to the lives of our campers in a more intimate way and making them comfortable exposing us to further aspects of their lives, cultures, and heritages.

And, of course, there was Shabbat. Shabbat afforded us the opportunity to bond as a group as well as to become more familiar with our cities, particularly the religious elements. For the prayer services, sometimes we prayed as a group, experiencing the camaraderie that only a joyful Kabbalat Shabbat can offer, while other times we joined the services of the local synagogues, often exposing ourselves to varying customs and traditions.

Sometimes we enjoyed the Shabbat meals as a group and sometimes we were hosted by members of the Gar’in Torani. These are families who have decided—after studying in yeshiva a number of years—to plant themselves in development towns and, even as they are occupied with regular jobs, offer all they have gained religiously to those who were not afforded as enriching an upbringing.

Shabbat also provided the opportunity to spend time informally with our campers in the form of an oneg Shabbat, as well as to see some of them thrive in their Shabbat youth groups.

A colleague of mine poignantly expressed the coexistence between being givers and being receivers that we experienced throughout the summer. At the end of a letter, she writes, “Thank you Dimona, and my campers, for opening up your city to me. Thank you for opening my eyes to all of the talent and potential that lies here. I wish everybody would see it.”

All of this could be said of Counterpoint in any year, but Counterpoint 2014, taking place during Operation Protective Edge, acquired a whole new level of distinction. Not necessarily in terms of how the camp itself was run; the day-to-day activities of the camp remained virtually the same.

But therein lies the rub. While virtually every other summer program staffed by a similar demographic to ours—American college students—did not continue to function as usual, Counterpoint did. And in contradistinction to all other programs, Counterpoint was operating directly in the line of fire! In a summer full of moments that embodied what it meant to be with Am Yisrael, the Jewish nation, our experiences in Counterpoint provided no shortage of them.

To be with Am Yisrael was to hear the heart-wrenching news of murders from someone whose brother works for the Israeli intelligence services, our Israeli head counselor, Shira Roi. It was to have Counterpoint enable us to be in Nof Ayalon, Naftali Frenkel’s hometown, for his funeral, together with thousands of other mourners. It was to encounter people there I had not seen in over a year, yet to proceed—each of us—with the clear, mutual understanding that this was not a time for greetings. Hugs, though, yes. It was to hear the mournful, yet heartening eulogies of the grieving parents, addressing him achingly and adoringly by his family nickname, “Naftali-li sheli.”

To be with Am Yisrael was to be in Kiryat Malachi when the first siren there went off this summer. It was to be directly affected by the war, as the IDF Homefront Command ordered ours and all other area camps shut down just a day later. It was to persevere and proceed to run a full camp with all regularly scheduled programming in Dimona the next two weeks.

To be with Am Yisrael was to run to the shelters together with our Israeli campers and discover that they handled the ordeal more calmly than we did. It was to live by the halacha that preserving one’s life and the continuity of the Jewish nation is more precious than prayer, as we were forced to interrupt the amida prayers multiple times when sirens went off.

To be with Am Yisrael was to learn that a rocket landed a mere couple hundred feet away from the house of one of our campers in Kiryat Malachi. It was to hear a siren blare Shabbat morning, only to find out after Shabbat that the boom I heard in the shelter had, in fact, killed a Bedouin not too far away.

This is not to say the Counterpoint head staff was rash in making the decision to continue. When that decision was finally reached—after days upon days spent in deliberations amongst themselves, city officials, and security representatives of Homefront Command— numerous security precautions were taken to ensure our safety. All of these burdened the program with unplanned costs, but Counterpoint marched forward nonetheless, trusting that caring benefactors would assist in that regard.

Consequently, while Jews across the world were donating money towards programs being spontaneously created to provide psychological release and relief for residents of Israel’s south, Counterpoint was probably the most organized and impactful of such programs for residents not on the immediate border of Gaza.

Through this difficult situation, I believe the greatness of Counterpoint was unveiled. Counterpoint’s greatness lies in a head staff imbued with a passionate sense of mission, a mission that has led them to pursue the creation and formation of a program that fills a hole previously ignored in the Jewish nation. Most impressively, this summer revealed the full depth of that sense of mission, a sense so strong that it spurs them to do literally everything in their capabilities to further their mission.

It is so strong, not even an Ethiopian man brandishing a six-foot rod can stop them.
Reprinted with permission from Intermountain Jewish News, Copyright 2014.