By Yael Blau
“I am going to be teaching English to underprivileged children in Arad.” This was the line I said over and over this past spring whenever someone asked me what I would be doing during the summer. I had no idea what it meant or what I would actually be doing. And I certainly was not aware that I was about to have the best summer of my life.
Arad is a small town located in Israel’s desert, about 45 minutes from Beer Sheva. Though the inhabitants of Arad are diverse, it consists mainly of Ger Chasidim and Russian immigrants. It also happens to be one of the three towns that benefit from Yeshiva University’s Counterpoint program. Twenty-nine students from YU are divided between Arad, Dimona, and Kiryat Malachi, and these YU men and women run summer camps for kids between sixth and tenth grade. Throughout the day, the students teach English, run electives, and create a positive atmosphere for at-risk Israeli youth. I was lucky enough to be chosen to participate in this amazing program.
When I arrived on my first day, I was blown away by the expanse of desert stretching for miles beyond the Ulpana that I would call home for three weeks. We made the fifteen-minute journey in the hot desert sun to the school where we would set up our camp. I was told who my teaching partner would be, and we quickly got to work decorating the classrooms. Arad had four classes and mine was Team Earth, but that name would soon change.
When we first started camp, I did not realize just how strong these children are. Many of them were from the former Soviet Union and spoke as much Russian as they did Hebrew. They came in with smiles on their faces, giving high fives to one another and singing random songs. They scarfed down the borekas we gave out for breakfast. For some, it was the first thing they were eating that day. As time went on, they shared their life stories with the counselors. One girl’s father received a four-year prison sentence. One boy has to help his sick father in his bakery every morning before camp and every afternoon until late at night. One girl’s father lives in Ukraine while her mother lives in Israel. One boy lost his father to cancer. The stories go on and on. No one pities them and no one fights for them, so they fight for themselves. When they get hurt, they do not let the pain stop them from continuing forward. They are invincible.
These young adults are also incredibly creative and bursting with potential. On the first day of camp, at the end of my English lesson, one of the girls in the class started drawing fish on scrap paper. The rest of the class followed suit and by the end of the lesson, all the kids had drawn pictures of fish, which we then hung up around the classroom. At the end of the day, when my co-counselor CJ Glicksman and I returned to the classroom to clean up, we saw that a few of the campers had drawn Gary from SpongeBob on a poster, and above it they had written: “Gary, our ruler.” From that day on, our class was known as Gary and the Flying Fish.
Their creativity shone even brighter when two girls from Team Gary decided to start a new elective, one in which they would direct and perform a play. They worked tirelessly both in and out of camp to create a comical version of Romeo and Juliet which they performed at the end of camp. It was not only hysterical, but it brought together kids who had been swearing at each other only a week earlier.
They have dreams that they want to achieve. There was a day in which CJ and I had our class draw posters of their career aspirations. The professions ranged from pilot to marine biologist. In Arad, they face many obstacles in attempting to achieve these goals and it tears me apart to think that these kids may not be able to actualize the great potential within them.
Camp certainly was not easy. There were days when the lesson we had spent so much time preparing fell flat, and we had to improvise. There were times when the sixth-grade girls turned against each other like a scene out of “Mean Girls”. There were days when the kids refused to go to any elective, and instead blasted inappropriate music on their speakers. However, it was all worth it when a kid who had arrived at camp in the morning looking depressed left at 3 PM with a huge smile on his face. Nothing can compare to the sense of fulfillment I felt when I knew I had brought happiness to one of my campers.
With each passing day, I grew closer and closer to my campers. I started walking one of my campers home, and she began to confide in me. I am still messaging her now, even though camp is long over and I do not know when I will next see her. Saying goodbye at the end of camp was heartbreaking and almost everyone shed a tear.
Not only were the kids amazing, but the staff was incredible as well. We were a group of eight counselors, one head counselor, and one rakezet (and her husband). I could not have asked for a better group of people to spend my summer with. The very first night in Arad, we all talked late into the night around a bonfire, sharing personal stories and thoughts. We only grew closer from there, working together to deal with whatever came our way. We spent hours hashing over the events of each day, looking to one another for advice with difficulties we faced. When the program was over, we could not stay apart and spent the following Shabbos together at the home of our rakezet’s parents.
Reflecting back on the summer, I see just how much I have grown as a person. Just like I helped my campers gain confidence to speak English, I gained the confidence to speak Hebrew. I learned to be patient and how to improvise. Lastly, I learned to be grateful for my family, my community, and my friends around me. As much as I tried to help children in Arad, they have left an even bigger impact on me— one that will last a lifetime.