Dimona On My Mind: How Changing Lives Changed My Life
by Daniella Lazar
“Thank you for supporting me and investing in me – thank you so much.”
The morning after his Bagrut exam (the Israeli equivalent of the Regents Exams administered in New York State), one of my campers in Dimona expressed these heartfelt words to me. Though I came to Dimona with the “Counterpoint Israel Program,” a project of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, to teach English and facilitate a summer camp for under-privileged Israeli teenagers, I noticed that my role stretched far beyond that.
I was not simply a counselor, playing sports with the boys and dancing with the girls, nor was I just the English teacher who tried to make every lesson fun and exciting. After hearing these words from my camper, it became clear to me that I was also a much-needed friend, role model, and source of inspiration.
On the first day of camp, the campers and counselors sensed a major disconnect – we appeared to be entirely incompatible. Many of the campers didn’t know that Jews lived outside of the State of Israel, and didn’t care to meet any. However, as I began to speak to them during our morning gathering, we realized just how much we had in common.
We had similar tastes in music, enjoyed playing the same sports, and even wore the same brands of clothing. As we dug even deeper, a relationship slowly began to form and the barriers came tumbling down.
As the days passed, the connection intensified and the campers expressed an interest in hanging out with us after camp. Some of the campers even visited us on Shabbat – without an official invite – because they genuinely missed spending time with us. We sat around the Shabbat table, laughing, telling jokes, and singing. We will always remember that Friday night. It was the night we started to see our campers come out of their shells, the night they started to show true self-confidence.
The beauty of Counterpoint is that virtually everything we do with the campers helps them expand their horizons and focus on what they can accomplish, consistently building their confidence levels.
The daily English lessons that we prepared for our campers did not resemble those of a typical school in that we relied heavily on various worksheets and games. Every time the students completed an assignment, we hung it on the wall so that we could all admire their work. In this way, we were surrounded (physically!) by their accomplishments. Looking around the room at the end of a long week, my campers beamed with pride while I marveled at just how far they had come in such a short time.
The daily activities that we organized presented the campers with a chance to shine. The shy girl, the one who used to whisper her name, suddenly became the dance expert in class. The boy who was always afraid to embrace art because it was “girly,” finally had an opportunity to do so … and excelled at it.
But it’s clear to me that I was very much on the receiving end as well. As much as I invested in my campers, they were also helping me grow as a teacher, a leader, and as a person.
I have spent quite a bit of time in Israel over the years. Our family toured the country on vacations, I spent my gap-year studying in an Israeli seminary, and I had a fulfilling experience volunteering with Magen David Adom. But nothing compares to my time in Dimona as a Counterpoint counselor. I am so grateful for this experience.
The city of Dimona has become my summer home (one I would like to return to someday) and its citizens my extended family. Knowing that my efforts were appreciated allowed me to tackle my daily responsibilities as a counselor with strength and a smile. Knowing that that I made a difference in Dimona, will carry me for years to come.
Daniella Lazar is a resident of Cedarhurst, NY and a student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, where she is majoring in political science and minoring in Biology. Daniella and 59 other exceptional undergraduate students from the United States, Canada and Panama spent the month of July as counselors and teachers on the eighth annual “Counterpoint Israel Program,” running camps for 300 Israeli campers from varied socio-economic backgrounds in five cities, including Arad, Dimona, Beer Sheva, Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi.
photos courtesy Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future