A group of Yeshiva University students saw firsthand the impact Jewish values of compassion and working to redeem the world can have on others after spending four weeks leading a summer program for youth in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city that experienced the most violent civil unrest in Israel during the Gaza conflict just a few weeks earlier.
The 18 undergraduates not only ran English classes and fun recreational activities – from board games to sports – for more than 400 local Jewish, Arab and Christian elementary and high school students in the city, but they also acted as mentors, spirit-lifters and supports to the youth during an extremely difficult time in their lives.
It was all part of YU’s popular Counterpoint Israel initiative, which for the last 15 summers has engaged YU undergraduate students to run day camps in underserved southern Israeli cities. Given the need following the recent Gaza conflict, plans were altered to move this year’s program to Lod.
“Despite the tension and violence that took place just a few weeks before, I was amazed how these kids came together through this program, regardless of their backgrounds,” said Noa Atar from Newton, Mass, a third-year psychology/biology student at YU’s Stern College for Women, and one of the program’s leaders. “Once in a while, they would talk about the ‘other side’ and how scary it was to leave their homes during the riots, but mostly, they just focused on being kids – having fun together, singing, dancing, playing sports and learning – and getting to know each other as individuals,” she said.
After receiving extensive training from trauma experts, psychologists, Rabbis and other specialists about what to expect in the mixed community and how to sensitively approach the aftermath of the conflict, the YU students were placed in three different schools where they were tasked with building bridges.
Atar credits the professional guidance for helping her overcome her initial hesitation of working with the children and build her confidence as a program leader. “The training was a good reminder about always putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and being there for others in need, even if it’s just listening to their stories.”
“As Jewish people, we have an obligation to put aside our differences and help others, and the 2021 Counterpoint Israel program did just that,” said Stephanie Strauss, executive director of YU in Israel, who secured the City of Lod and World Zionist Organization (WZO) – under the direction of Chairman Yaakov Hagoel – as sponsors to make this year’s program possible. “It instilled a sense of civic responsibility and values-based leadership in our students and made an enduring impact on the hundreds of children with whom they engaged,” Strauss said.
For program participant Meira Prager of Teaneck, N.J., a third-year student studying early childhood education at Stern College for Women, the Counterpoint experience was invaluable in boosting her skills for her future career path. “For someone like me who is studying to be an educator, that experience was inspiring and humbling,” she said.
The summer experience also gave the YU students an opportunity to bond with each other as they enjoyed a range of off-hours programming that featured evening guest lecturers – from YU President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman and other esteemed Rabbis, to successful Israeli CEOs – Torah learning, Shabbatons and field trips, including a personal meeting with Lod Mayor Yair Revivo.
“In addition to life and leadership lessons learned, the program deepened the students’ understanding of Jewish values and developed relationships that will last a lifetime,” Strauss said, adding that it also helped reinforce the value of YU’s presence in Israel.
Range of unique summer programs
The Counterpoint program is just one of a range of opportunities YU offered undergraduates this summer to open their eyes to different career paths and help them polish their resumes, build their professional networks and be better positioned for future success.
The YU-Orthodox Union Consulting Force initiative gave 21 YU undergraduates a deep dive into the world of business management consulting through internships at select Jewish nonprofits and Israeli startups. The program included a case study hackathon, interactive sessions with executives from top-tier firms such as McKinsey, KPMG, Boston Consulting, Deloitte and Morgan Stanley, and actual client projects.
The YU Israel internship program connected 10 students with game-changing, high-tech startups – including Hometalk, CauseMatch, 200apps, Tunefork, MassChallenge Israel and Israeli think tank Kohelet Policy Forum – for eight weeks of on-the-job learning in Jerusalem.
Twenty budding scientists participated in the Bar-Ilan University Yeshiva University Summer Science Research internship program, where they assisted with research in one of the school’s Life Sciences, Brain Research, Exact Sciences and Engineering labs under the direction of leading faculty members.
The Archaeological Fieldwork initiative at Tell es-Safi/Gath Israel – the reputed home of Goliath – gave participating YU students the unique opportunity to join forces with an international team on an ongoing site excavation, recovering and analyzing remains, and learning new insights into ancient culture and biblical history.
YU also offered 84 in-person and online summer courses – from science and history to religious studies – which attracted record enrolment. Two of these courses were offered in partnership with Camp HASC and Camp Morasha. At Camp HASC, undergraduates worked with those with special needs to better understand their complex challenges and improve their daily lives, while the Camp Morasha course examined the intersection between successful leadership and Jewish values.
More information about YU’s summer programs can be found at www.blogs.yu.edu/news/summer-2021-yu-student-interns-contribute-and-prepare-for-the-future.