‘Counterpoint Israel’ grooms YU students as ‘Jewish leaders of tomorrow’

Zach Katz (second from right, standing) of Bergenfield, N.J., and Elan Rotenberg (far right) of Baltimore, Md., run an English class for Counterpoint Israel campers in Kiryat Gat. Credit: Courtesy.
Zach Katz (second from right, standing) of Bergenfield, N.J., and Elan Rotenberg (far right) of Baltimore, Md., run an English class for Counterpoint Israel campers in Kiryat Gat. Credit: Courtesy.

“The students are not coming here to save the world. But hopefully they can give as much as possible,” says Rabbi Kiva Rabinksy, director of the Counterpoint Israel program.

The summertime initiative recently completed its 10th year, with camps in Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, Dimona, and Arad. The month-long immersive service-learning program aims to empower the next generation of Israeli youths by teaching them English and offering them an exciting, American-style, Jewish values-driven summer camp. Counterpoint Israel also hopes to instill in Yeshiva University students, who serve as counselors, a sense of civic responsibility before they return to school in the fall.

“Dialoguing with their American counselors, who are religious Jews, and taking part in Jewish heritage programming results in the [campers’] exploration of their personal and Jewish identity,” Rabinksy tells

The camps are set up in areas of Israel with no structured summer program for teens and in places where youths tend to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—environments plagued with violence or other social ails. The YU students come from across the spectrum of academic concentrations and personal interests. Each counselor undergoes a weeklong training to understand the background of the Israeli youths they work with. The counselors meet with psychologists and learn about new educational theories that could support their work.

“We have two distinct goals,” Rabinsky says. “In terms of the campers, it is teaching English and relationship building. … For the YU students, this is a program for activism and a chance to demonstrate what it means to be agents of change.”

Rivka Hia, an incoming YU senior majoring in English and creative writing, returned to Counterpoint for a second summer this year because she finds the work “meaningful” and the impact “astounding.” Hia says that when she started with the program, she didn’t know what to expect. She had been to Israel on many occasions, but had not spent much time in the country’s peripheral northern and southern regions. Over time, she learned to focus on “small victories” that ultimately added up to a transformative experience.

“There was a camper who had not participated in activities at the beginning, she was really shy,” Hia recalls. “And she would never sing. Then, at the end of the summer, she and a counselor did a duet in the talent show. She had gained the self-confidence to perform.”

Hia notes another camper who struggled with his English lessons, but by the end of the Counterpoint Israel program told her he hoped to be an ambassador to America who would “teach us Hebrew the way we were teaching English.”

Zachary Katz, an incoming junior at YU, says he chose to take part in Counterpoint because he realized “how privileged we are as modern Orthodox American Jews. I go to college, am highly educated, make money. Then, you look around, read the news, and see all the problems in the world. I needed to give back.”

Katz was drawn to Counterpoint because it enabled him to connect with other Jews and make a difference in the Jewish homeland.

“I think we really empowered the kids,” he says. “Day by day, you don’t feel you are making a difference. But when you look back, you can see the impact we had.”

“Counterpoint” is actually not unique to Israel. It’s an international program launched 40 years ago as the “Torah Leadership Seminar,” an informal Jewish education program for high school students in Australia. The Counterpoint formula has since been replicated in South Africa, South America, Turkey, Canada, and Israel. Counterpoint Israel 2015 was run with support from the VIP Passover Yizkor Appeal and Neal’s Fund, in memory of Neal Dublinsky.

Hia says one of the cornerstones of Counterpoint is “an encounter point.”

“It’s an opportunity for American college students and Israeli teens to meet and learn from each other,” she says. “A lot of people think counselors do all the teaching and the campers all the learning. But there is a lot of learning by the counselors from the campers.”

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, YU’s vice president for university and community life, adds, “So many leaders of Jewish communities throughout North America and in Israel are products of Counterpoint. … It is exciting to think that counselors and campers of today will be among the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.”

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