Counterpoint: Changing Routines, Not Lives
Deserts have perpetually blue skies—the sort of blue associated with beach days and summer weather. But the blue stretching above the monochrome desert sand of Arad, Israel does not have that positive, sunny-day effect. Everything in Arad happens beneath a ceaselessly blue sky that, to many, would indicate hope and opportunity, but to Aradians represents the cyclical nature of their trying lives.
I came to Arad with Counterpoint Israel, a Yeshiva University program that sends students to the Israeli cities of Kiryat Malachi, Dimona and Arad to run camps for at-risk teens. Counterpoint counselors are brought to these cities to “help campers strengthen their written and oratory English skills, to bolster campers’ overall self-confidence, and to engage campers in conversations geared towards identity development,” according to the program’s mission statement. These lofty goals are actualized in a three-week summer camp that combines learning English with camp activities such as sports, art and dance.
I think it’s important to reflect humbly and honestly on why Counterpoint Israel matters, and accordingly, after being a counselor on the program, I am forced to ask how three weeks of summer camp can make any difference in an otherwise-relentless routine of boredom and unchallenged potential. Due to the subtleties involved in forming relationships with teens, I could not seriously consider why and how Counterpoint makes a difference in the lives of the teens it serves before participating in the program, and while I was in Arad, I constantly wrestled with a nagging concern that the work we were doing did not matter at all. Now, as almost two months have passed since Counterpoint ended, my answer to the question of ‘why it matters’ is clear in my mind and is different than what I was told it would be.
A simple answer, such as “we changed their lives,” would be disrespectful to the campers I came to love and a misrepresentation of the impactful work Counterpoint counselors do. Talking about the impact we made as “life-changing” or “everlasting” is both a simplification and overestimation. I do not say this to minimize Counterpoint or discount its immense value, rather, I aim to identify and specify the impact of Counterpoint in Arad.
For three weeks, we teach kids ranging from 11 to 16 years old English, give them love and attention, and model a positive relationship with authority. Then we leave. We leave just when the attachment and relationship solidifies. We leave at the point where they will be sad to see us go, but not miss us once we are gone. It is not clear that three weeks in a full childhood matters at all.
We did not change the cycles our campers live in. We did not change the reality of absent parents, desperate financial situations, or relieve them from whatever circumstances they were born into that qualify them as “at-risk teens.” We did not radically alter their relationships or facilitate a new kind of understanding. What we did do was introduce a welcome contrast and a joyful disruption. We interrupted an otherwise-empty summer and created variance where there was routine. We created a hiccup in these children’s painful and seemingly ceaseless cycle.
While the campers generally and comfortably challenge authority, face the consequences thereof, and again defy authority, we insisted on a different dynamic by establishing warm and playful relationships. We modeled for the campers trusting relationships, ones in which their happiness, balance, and well being were a primary concern. Where vacation time is usually time spent roaming the streets or watching television, camp offered structure and activity. We promoted interests and encouraged ambition by having the teens try new activities and think bigger about their goals. For example, we facilitated a camper-run play of a comedic, bilingual version of “Romeo and Juliet.” In cycles of aggression and searches for dominance, we ended feuds in handshakes and catfights with apologies.
For three weeks, nine Yeshiva University students worked endlessly to create an environment based on unapologetic celebration of values, learning and fun. We watched reticent campers emerge as self-declared color war captains. Restless teens with little interest in English articulated full sentences with genuine pride and a brand new confidence. In an energetic, charged environment where teamwork and comradery were essential, campers opened up to one another, embraced their peers and worked to understand each others’ differences.
However, each morning the campers woke up to the same unflinching, blue sky, reminding them that no matter the fun they had at camp, their circumstances can not be changed. To me, that color was a symbol of what we came to Arad to do. Our accents, attitude, hashkafa and relationships all came together to create a fiery new color for contrast.
If I were to put forward that the children's routine will feel different after this disruption or that they will make better choices following their new experiences, it would be conjecture. The kids we grew to love will likely fall back into their routine. The endless blue sky will remind them every day that they live in Arad with limited options and a sort of routine that qualifies them as “at risk.” Their lives will mostly likely stay on course, unchanged by three weeks of summer camp. However, I do not believe the significance of Counterpoint lies in quantifiable results. Saying that we ‘changed lives’ does not accurately describe what we went there to do, nor does it properly depict the amazing things we accomplished.
No cliche can do justice to the joy this program creates and the potential it unleashes. On the backdrop of life in Arad, the campers’ experience on Counterpoint is one of utter difference. Counterpoint matters because it offers newness in every respect—not because it changes lives. Being around college students who believe unflinchingly in each campers’ ability achieve their ambitions and fulfill their potential is valuable in its own right. Those three weeks matter not for the results that follow, but for what they were: unthinking fun and unquestioning support for teens who are brimming with untapped potential. The three weeks matter in their insinuation that there is more out there—that there is room for warm, caring relationships beneath the Aradian blue sky.
Photo Caption: The never-ending blue sky that covers the desert of Arad goes on unchanged, just like the lives of the campers at Counterpoint.
Photo Credit: Elana Muller