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A Camp to Remember: YU Counterpoint Runs English Summer Program for Yemin Orde Children

If you happened to be around Yeshiva University’s Jerusalem campus on August 17, you would undoubtedly have been drawn to participate in the festive scene taking place. Cheery, energetic teenagers from the Yemin Orde youth village in the northern Carmel region were entertaining their peers and counselors in a finale celebration of the English language camp they had been attending for the past three weeks.

Thirty-two campers from the Yemin Orde youth village and 14 counselors  took part in the program, run by the Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future's Counterpoint Israel Program and funded through donations from Jewish Federations.

Now in its sixth year, this program‘s summer schedule differed by providing a sleep away camp in the Yeshiva University (YU) campus location, catering to the children who had been traumatically affected by the Carmel Forest fires. On Dec 2, 2010, fires seared through their youth village, destroying the majority of their homes. Federations had responded to the critical needs of those in the Carmel region as they do to all emergencies in Israel and funding this camp was a demonstration of continued support. For youth who had already experienced great difficulties, this natural disaster was significantly disruptive. As a result, the program coordinators took pains to engender feelings of stability and security in the camp's running.

The days' activities were deliberately structured with routine predictability. Says Kiva, camp coordinator; 'Our goal here is not just to provide them with a fun and easy summer but to give them stability. That's why every day we keep on reiterating the schedule, repeating certain English words and phrases, just so that they have that feeling of stability. It's clear how important the consistency is to them.' At times, the children themselves took the initiative, requesting extra English classes at 10pm. These optional lessons weren't timetabled but over a dozen enthusiastic students turned up to hone their skills.

The experience of the Counterpoint-run camp was meaningful for both campers and staff.  Two of the counselors from Yeshiva University described how much they'd taken from the camp; 'We've both done camp, but nothing like this. This was a totally new experience,' declared Tamar Schwarzbard from Brooklyn and Atara Staimen from Teaneck, who had both been counselors in the month-long YU run camp in Dimona before coming to the Jerusalem get-away. 'We had two days of orientation and then dived straight in'.

Says Atara; 'These are the kind of programs kids remember. Each day we did something different.' One day it was tree climbing with ropes, lacrosse or navigating an obstacle course in Gan Sacher, the next, a game  of 'find the counselors' in the Mamilla shopping mall. The camp gave the students positive experiences crafted to carry them through the year. Almaker, 17 relates his highlight, 'We slept in Bedouin tents and then woke up at dawn to trek to the top of Masada to learn about its history. It was a long tiring day but the most enjoyable one of the whole camp'. Adds Tachilo, 17; 'We went hiking in the Judean Desert and then swam in the Dead Sea. It was my first time – I had such an amazing time.' 

The upbeat atmosphere is something the Yemin Orde counselors strive to maintain throughout the year. Four counselors present at the camp were also from the youth village, thereby preserving a sense of continuity. After the camp, the counselors make themselves available to the campers, keeping in contact. However, to avoid disappointment, the children are prepped as to how the friendships will pan out: much care is taken to insulate the children's emotional state, so that they blossom fruitfully without any bruising. Not only are the children afforded a boost in their academic studies but also fluency in their transition from camp to regular life.

The counselors expressed a feeling that the Yemin Orde campers were unlike average stereotypical teenagers. Asserts Shelby respectfully; 'These kids are the most gentle, heartwarming, motivated kids I've ever worked with – so atypical'. 'After every activity, they offer appreciation, whether it's a simple 'Thanks' or 'That was fun'.

When asked about the lessons, Almaker earnestly asserts, 'All the lessons are engraved in my memory. We hope it will be easier for us in English classes next year as we immersed ourselves in the language so much that we internalized the knowledge. We are demonstrating what we know. Each person understands the other and that's important.' At the closing ceremony, as well as popping and breakdancing shows, certificates were awarded for effort and achievement. Tamar recalls, 'It's interesting to compare the kids at the beginning and then now. At the start, it was challenging since many of the kids are olim and their Hebrew is not up to par'.

The camp is clearly a departure from normal routine as the children attempt linguistic feats rarely seen in the normal setting of school.  'In general they've been taken out of their comfort zones, says Gila, camp coordinator, 'but we've created a safe space for them here, be it in English lessons or touring, where we go to a place unfamiliar to all of us.' Dana, a coordinator at the village who attended the camp, says warmly, 'Ask them a simple question; where were you three weeks ago and where are you today? How do you feel about yourself? That's the best indication for a child'.

Out of around 30 campers, all but 4 were of Ethiopian origin; a strong cultural presence prevailed, facilitating several sharing opportunities and increasing the children's self-confidence in their own background. 'We were at a bonfire and could only sit back and watch them dance. It was our turn to feel a minority and so to learn from them'.

Atara emphasizes, 'It's so important to them that we came and we really care about them. We ask them about their background and traditions.' Tamara adds, 'We found it was very important for their culture to be validated. We are Americans who've come from abroad especially to be with them. That means a lot to them, that we chose to be here.' The social worker from Yemin Orde who came to the camp affirms; 'It was amazing the connection the campers had with counselors, they spoke about things they never would have spoken about in the village.'

The camp metamorphosed into a place for different cultures to mix. Even the opportunity to play American football bridged some cultural boundaries. Says Tachilo; 'I finally learnt the rules. I always wanted to play such games but never knew how.'

Dana, speaking of the benefits that the Jewish Federation movement's funding of the camp has reaped, says; 'They've entered the program as one person and exited as another. And it's marvelous, astonishing. That's your reward; children who are in a different place – they're so happy and content. 'These teenagers, like many, needed that extra external push to help them to realize their potential.

Part of the curriculum was allotted to the discussion of value systems and moral standards. Not merely a series of exercises in English grammar (though unusually, this was reported to be an attraction) but rather a reexamination and cementing of values, the Counterpoint camp facilitated discussions of topics such as justice, charity, self-esteem and tolerance.

Reiterating her thanks to the Jewish Federations, Dana asserts; 'It's the best thing in the world to see these children like this. Truthfully, thank you - in the name of the children. This is really the best gift you could have given us. Especially in the summer. Instead of the children roaming the streets, they have progressed remarkably- and the reward is apparent. The children recognize that they can do something of value and have the confidence to move forward to work on their own personal growth. What we do over a whole year, you've enabled in the space of three weeks. Our gratitude comes from the heart'.

 

 

Yemin Orde children at english summer camp
receiving certificate of achievement
Federation funded summer camp for Yemin Orde
popping on stage at finale event
Federation funded Yemin Orde Camp
Tachilo speaking about the camp