Living Bridge programs implemented in southern Israel’s unique desert city impact Israeli youth and New Jersey counselors alike
Cool autumn winds have rendered the summer heat a distant memory, yet for many children and parents from the southern Israeli town of Arad, as well as sixteen young American counselors, the summer of 2011 will remain vivid for a long time to come.
Last July sixteen Jewish American counselors, ten of which hail from New Jersey and Delaware, arrived in Arad to teach English and empower children from the local community through two unique summer camp initiatives named “Kefiada” and “Counterpoint Israel”, respectively. Kefiada and Counterpoint Israel in Arad are both funded by a cluster of Jewish Federations from New Jersey and Delaware, whom are deeply connected to the city of Arad and the Tamar regional council through the local Partnership 2Gether (P2G) platform, an inspiring, long term partnership developed and cultivated by the Jewish Agency, a social service organization that has been connecting Jews from all over the world with Israel for over 80 years. A majority of the counselors, who are all college students, are members of the Arad and Tamar’s partner communities in New Jersey and Delaware. And as the counselors would find out soon enough, meeting the children and community of Arad would change the way they view Israel and its people, as well as offer them opportunities for personal growth.
Kefiada and Counterpoint Israel are much more than summer English camps; both serve as a “living bridge” between the Jewish communities in New Jersey and Delaware and Israelis from Arad. Their importance lies in creating a bond between Israeli children from the periphery and Jewish Americans who are passionate about their heritage, while also in introducing Jewish Americans to Arad and the nearby region. Located on the outskirts of the Negev and Judean Deserts, Arad is notable for its clean air, dry climate and surrounding desert mountains, as well as for its diverse Jewish population. Arad is also located a mere 12 miles from the historic Masada fortification, the site of the Romans’ siege against the Jews that rebelled against the Empire in 73 AD. Geographically, Arad is located deep within Israel’s periphery, as the majority of Israel’s population resides with the country’s central regions as well as on the Mediterranean coastline. Surrounded by desert and located a two-hour drive south of Tel-Aviv, Arad is often overlooked by visitors from the Diaspora in favor Israel’s central and northern regions.
Operating in Arad for the past fourteen years, Kefiada, which stems from the Hebrew word “Kef” (fun), educates children aged 9-12 in English and other subjects during the summer. American counselors run the camp during three intense weeks with fellow Israeli counselors, and as Program Director Lior Oknin describes, “Kefiada offers a two-way street experience; the counselors connect to Arad and its community, while our pupils get to know Jews who live overseas, thereby establishing closeness and trust with Jewish communities outside of Israel”.
Counterpoint Israel is a personal empowerment and Jewish values program developed and operated by Yeshiva University in New York, taking place during three consecutive weeks throughout the summer and consisting of English lessons, talent-building workshops and field trips administered to children aged 13-17. The counselors are mostly YU students who work with fellow Israeli counselors who are in charge of the workshops. Implemented for many years in the southern Israeli cities of Yerucham and Dimona and stationed in Arad for the first time in 2011, Counterpoint is described by YU Projects Director Gila Rockman as a “meeting place between Israel and the Diaspora, emphasizing ‘togetherness’ for the benefit of the Arad and its community”.
Tal Meiri, 19, who resided in Israel for one year prior to arriving in Arad as a Kefiada counselor, recalls her experiences: “For me it was an opportunity to get to know another side of Israel…I spent Shabbat with an Ethiopian family and met with parents who immigrated to Israel from India…I loved the diversity within the Arad community”. Avital Chizhik, 20, a Counterpoint instructor, recalls meeting with the children together with other counselors: “They wanted to connect. They wanted to be our friends. We were on cloud nine because of that. It really says a lot about children that their heart is open”. Avital fondly remembers a group of 3 girls who were not easy to approach at first: “They were very tough, but I was able to connect with them and we had a lot of deep conversations. We talked about the topics they like to talk about at first, and that served as a gateway to important subjects like self-esteem”.
Many of the counselors had never been to Arad, and deeply connected with its desert ambiance and small town demeanor. Avital recalls: “I was expecting the projects, yet Arad is well developed and resembles a nice suburban little town. I was blown away by the nature and the contrast between green lawns and palm trees and the desert”. Yossi Mason, 22, who returned last summer for his second stint as instructor at Kefiada: “Arad is the nicest place I have ever been to. It is my favorite city. The people are great; the weather is pleasant and relaxing. It’s a friendly area. I feel at home there”. Eliana Sohn, who visited Israel for the fifth time last summer, arrived in Arad for the first time via Counterpoint: “I was looking to become more involved in the Israel experience, and not just meet tourists. I feel I made a connection with southern Israel. I had never given the south much thought before”.
Living Bridge initiatives are important for many American Jews, who seek to establish a deep connection with Israel and its vibrant communities, as well as for Israelis. These connections make a true difference, as cultural differences afford countless learning opportunities and similarities create an empowering bond. Rabbi Joshua Hess of Linden, NJ, who joined Counterpoint as the program’s Rabbinical Leader, reflects: “It was difficult for the counselors to say goodbye to the campers. The depth of their relationships was profound. We managed to teach the campers some values that will help them as adults”. Stacey Rivkin of Cherry Hill, NJ, who traveled to Arad with her husband Ed and volunteered to teach arts & crafts at Counterpoint, observes: “I came to realize that both Israelis and American Jews think about the future of our youth, and while our concerns may be different, there are many similarities”. Ruti, a parent of a pupil enrolled in Counterpoint, adds: “My son connected to the American students as fellow Jews. For us as parents, it is important to teach our children that the Jewish people is made up of different people from all over the world and only coming together will make us stronger”.