Esther Kuperman didn’t realize just how much of an impact she had on her Israeli campers until her last day as a counselor.
“It was really the goodbyes that put it into perspective,” said Kuperman, a Jewish education major at Yeshiva University. “Something I did worked, and that was really meaningful.”
The Baltimore native was one of 30 students chosen to participate in Counterpoint Israel, spearheaded by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future. While the program’s activities mirror favorite pastimes of American Jewish camps, it isn’t a typical summer getaway for youth.
The 12-year-old initiative transports the traditional camp model to low-income cities in southern Israel, including Arad, Dimona and Kiryat Malachi. With an array of workshops, ranging from English lessons to sports, YU counselors strive to build relationships with the 200 Israeli campers — and keep them out of trouble during the restless months of summer.
Kuperman flew to Israel in early July to begin her three-week shtick as a counselor at the Arad-based camp. Although the 19-year-old senior wasn’t sure what to expect, it didn’t take long for her to feel at home around the seventh- to 11th-grade campers.
“We started to see each of their personalities shine through very quickly,” she said. “The kids were looking for relationships with us, which we couldn’t believe until we got there.”
Despite the language barrier, they bonded over intense games of gaga and one-on-one talks about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some wanted to be nurses, while others were still trying to figure out their career path.
The majority of camp-goers attend low-performing schools and come from broken homes, unlike most of the counselors. In a 2012 evaluation of the program, YU reported that 45 percent of campers hadn’t participated in an enrichment program prior to Counterpoint Israel.
“Sometimes in the process of giving, you receive so much in return,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president of University and Community Life at Yeshiva University. “And I think that that’s what happens here. It’s a very transformational experience.”
As founder of Counterpoint Israel, Brander said he has seen how the program not only impacts Israeli youth, but also encourages its counselors to engage in self-discovery.
“When a young person starts to realize how they can make a difference in the world — how they can take a teenager who wasn’t sure if he or she would finish high school, who had no self-esteem, whose English skills were poor — it affects them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Longtime donor Sharon Blumenthal said the program is a “win-win” for Israeli youth and their staff. The former leave their respective camps with new role models and a strong sense of community, while the latter get a taste of Israeli life and culture, said the New Yorker, who sponsors the Dimona camp.
“Campers come to see the Diaspora Jew in a little bit of a different light,” Blumenthal said. “They get to forge relationships with Americans. That’s something they may never have had a chance to do.”
And the Israeli youth keep in touch with their counselors long after the end of the camp session. Kuperman has received messages saying, “I wish all our counselors were like you” and “I miss camp.”
“These kids are like our little siblings,” she said. “And that really makes an impact on our lives and theirs.”