Eight Years of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future Counterpoint Israel

Counterpoint Israel_YU CJFIntrospection, Reflection and Lessons Learned:
Eight Years of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future Counterpoint Israel

by Shuki Taylor

The month of Elul serves as a time of introspection – a time to look back at what was and forward to what will be. This month is an opportunity for those of us working in the field of education to reflect upon the impact that we aim to have, re-examine our goals and ensure that they are authentic, serve real needs, and are Leshem Shamayim – for the sake of the greater good.

This past year, my colleagues at YU CJF and I spent a lot of time reflecting on the successes and challenges that Yeshiva University’s Counterpoint Israel program has had since its establishment eight years ago. We commissioned Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz and his team at Research Success Technologies to conduct an intensive study of Counterpoint Israel between June 2012 and January 2013.

We’d like to share some of the study’s findings and our reflections with you. We sincerely hope that being transparent about our successes and failures will help others grow as much as it has helped us.

Yeshiva University Counterpoint Israel

Counterpoint Israel is a five-week Jewish service-learning program run by Yeshiva University Center for the Jewish Future, during which YU Students travel to development towns in Southern Israel and run English summer camps for at-risk Israeli teenagers. The program highlights Israel-Diaspora education and aims to nurture and grow a strong sense of Jewish identity within its participants through meaningful and needed service work, leadership education and authentic and long lasting partnerships.

The Study

The Counterpoint Israel study demonstrates that partnership between Israeli and American Jews – between Yeshiva University’s Counterpoint program and Israeli municipalities – can benefit all involved. Counterpoint partners with municipalities in five cities and aims to benefit three parties: (1) Israeli at-risk teenagers, by helping them improve their English and develop strong personal relationships with American Jews. (2) Yeshiva University students, by allowing them to deepen their ties with Israel and exposing them to experience relevant to a career in education or communal service. (3) Israeli municipalities, by offering them a means of investing in enrichment programming for their youth.

The Israeli at-risk teens: Relationships are everything, but they are also subject to selection bias.

According to Dr. Kopelowitz, Counterpoint’s experiential Jewish education curriculum, which features English classes and workshops in the arts and sports, provides a transformative experience for both Israeli campers and YU student volunteers. Counterpoint creates a learning environment that encourages the Israeli teens to speak with their YU counselors in English and promotes the development of strong personal bonds between Israeli campers and YU counselors.

Counterpoint makes English and vocabulary lessons fun and engaging, an experience very different from what Israeli teenagers are used to. While most teen programs in these development towns are undersubscribed, the opposite is true of the Counterpoint Summer Camps, which have long waiting lists. Speaking English for the duration of camp, builds campers’ confidence, enables campers to acquire valuable knowledge and skills and leaves them with a heightened sense of accomplishment.

The Israeli teens come from diverse backgrounds and often lead largely secular lives. Despite that fact that formal kiruv is not one of the goals of the Counterpoint, the teens interaction with YU students – observant Jews – pushes them to explore their personal and Jewish identities.

However …

In attempting to further improve Counterpoint we came across an obstacle that should be addressed. There exists a selection bias that negatively impacts the weakest campers’ chances of improving their English: The YU counselors naturally tend to speak more with Israeli campers who are the most motivated to improve their English and coincidentally have prior experience with enrichment programming. Such campers initiate the most conversation with YU students and end up with the most “talk time.” The campers who most need to improve their English are the least likely to engage their YU counselors, and the YU counselors focus more on those asking for their attention. Having learned that one of the most important aspects to the success of Counterpoint is the personal dialogue between camper and counselor, moving forward we have decided to emphasize the need for YU counselors to consciously target Israeli campers who do not actively engage them in conversation.

The Yeshiva University students: Who to recruit and how to integrate?

The Counterpoint camps expose YU students to Israelis and Israeli society. Throughout the program, the students learn about the communities that they service and gain both a theoretical and practical understanding of advanced experiential Jewish education techniques. YU students’ experience on Counterpoint raises their interest in professions that will allow them to contribute to the Jewish and global community. The experience also strengthens YU students’ connections to Israeli Jews.

However …

While the YU students participate in five full days of pedagogic training prior to Counterpoint, during the camps and YU Head Advisors have training for close to six months it is exceedingly difficult to combine Counterpoint’s fully immersive and experiential service work with the theoretical and academic learning program that is offered to the students in the evening on Counterpoint. Transitioning from an action packed and often emotional day to an evening of learning and thinking is exhausting. To further improve Counterpoint, we look to better integrate its formal learning program with its immersive service-work component.

A Dilemma …

The study also suggests that our recruitment of YU students should focus on students with the strongest interest in experiential Jewish education and Israeli society as these students tend to gain the most from Counterpoint. This suggestion raises a dilemma: Should we recruit those who are naturally inclined to succeed on Counterpoint? Or, should we focus on those who are less inclined towards education and Israel instead, and hope for perhaps a broader impact?

The Israeli Municipalities: Creating mutual partnership

The study shows that the municipalities of cities in which Counterpoint operates see the program as indispensable to their educational systems. The municipalities are committed to contributing their own resources to ensure Counterpoint’s success. Some municipalities have even been inspired to invest in enrichment programming beyond Counterpoint.

However …

The study found that while the municipalities understood what they gained from Counterpoint, they knew very little about the programs’ benefits to the YU students. Because partnership is a core goal of the program, we realized that we must nurture a mutual relationship with Counterpoint’s Israeli stakeholders.

The study suggests that a discourse on partnership should focus on each stakeholder’s core assets and potential contributions. The discourse should emphasize the fact that if both YU and Counterpoint’s host municipalities contribute their own unique core assets, the whole will be far greater than the sum of its parts.

Counterpoint’s most valuable asset is YU Center for the Jewish Future’s ability to train counselors and create immersive educational environments based on the principals of experiential Jewish education. None of the Israeli stakeholders can recruit highly motivated and well-trained English speaking counselors to Counterpoint.

With this fact in mind, the study suggests that Counterpoint should no longer act as the provider of a summer camp (which the Israelis receive) and should attempt to act as a partner. The municipalities should assume a greater role in organizing Counterpoint’s camps while Counterpoint focuses on producing high quality experiential Jewish education.

This suggestion is based on the idea that when each partner (be it YU CJF and Counterpoint’s host municipalities, or, more broadly, Israel and Diaspora Jewries) brings an asset to the table that its counterpart lacks and demonstrates a need for, the resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When each stakeholder is simultaneously a donor and a recipient, partnership is no longer a means to an end, but an end in itself.

The complete YU Counterpoint Israel Study is available here.

Shuki Taylor is the director of Jewish Service learning and Experiental Education Programs at Yeshiva University.