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Yes, we’re all Jewish

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Chaim Metzger teaches in Kiryat Gat. photos courtesy Yeshiva University

Middle-school Israelis in hardscrabble development towns asked a surprising question of the Yeshiva University students who came to teach them English during winter break: Are you Jewish?

The question itself underlines why the university’s Center for the Jewish Future put significant resources into planning a mere week of “Israel-diaspora Relations” classes, art projects, and workshops. About 40 Counterpoint Israel participants presented the program to 850 teens in seven student-run camps in the southeastern towns of Dimona, Kiryat Gat, and Kiryat Malachi.

“Every student in Israel has roots in the diaspora, but most of them have never had a chance to learn about where they come from,” said Aliza Abrams, director of YU’s CJF Department of Jewish Service Learning. “By taking this important introspective journey with counselors who are themselves from the diaspora, the students will realize how much they have in common with Jews around the world.”

“Counterpoint is a great example of Israel-diaspora relations, of cultures intersecting and learning about each other,” said Kiva Rabinsky, programs director of the CJF’s Department of Service Learning and Experiential Education.

He said the curriculum is designed to help the Israeli students improve their English “in an atmosphere of attention, care and love,” but also to learn about their commonalities and differences with Jews in the diaspora and to explore their own family’s heritage.

Teaching in pairs, the YU students helped the youngsters construct a poster map showing population centers of world Jewry. Mr. Rabinsky said this activity was “mind-blowing” for some of the children. In succeeding days, the kids designed postage stamps on the theme of global Jewry, which the Israel Postal Authority printed as actual stamps to post letters between the Israeli and YU students, who come from North America, Panama, and Colombia.

Six students from Teaneck where chosen for the second annual Counterpoint Israel Winter Camp: Tehilla Brander, who went to Dimona; Rebecca Kleiner and Chaim Metzger, who both went to Kiryat Gat, and Rebecca Peyser, Etana Staiman, and Sam Weinstein, who all went to Kiryat Malachi. Romy Koenig of Bergenfield went to Kiryat Malachi, and Avi Seidman of Bergenfield and Jennifer Lebowitz of Fair Lawn both went to Kiryat Gat.

Their sojourn in Israel, from January 9 to 19, included a week in the schools, three days of touring, working with youth at risk and parents of high-school dropouts, crafting pots and eating a traditional meal with Ethiopian immigrants involved in a special farming project, visiting an Aroma café in Rehovot run by youth at risk, and touring the Negev home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

The winter camp, which is supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation and Repair the World, is an abbreviated version of a summer Counterpoint program and was implemented at the suggestion of school officials in the towns served, Mr. Rabinsky said.

“Our host cities asked for us to come back in the winter. In Kiryat Gat, for example, four of the five school principals came to a meeting with the head of the local board of education, and they said Counterpoint’s effect had been so great they wanted it in all their schools this winter.”

Rebecca Kleiner, a sophomore at YU’s Stern College for Women, said she saw Counterpoint as an opportunity to “give something and also gain something for myself, to bring in my perspective and learn theirs on Israel-diaspora relations, and to be a good role model beyond just teaching English and learning a little more Hebrew.”

Working with eighth-graders in Kiryat Gat and staying in Kiryat Malachi, allowed her to see another side of Israel, a side to which tourists do not often gain access. She noted that the students with whom she worked come from varying religious backgrounds but all were from disadvantaged families.

She and her teaching partner had to work hard to keep everyone focused on the lesson and art project. “The first day, some kids in the back weren’t so interested — their English was not so great, and we were going back and forth between English and Hebrew. But even at the end of that first lesson they were not only participating but assisting their friends. We saw such a transition, and that was immediately rewarding.”

Jenny Lebowitz, a Stern junior majoring in psychology, said her eighth-graders gasped when they saw her writing Hebrew words on the blackboard. “It was eye-opening for me and for them, to know there are Jews all over the world. And we are all so different, but our roots keep us in common with one another.

“When I said I was from New Jersey, which is right by New York, a lot of them were asking me if I knew all these celebrities,” she recalled. “I wanted them to realize what they have in Israel is very special and we all have this connection.” She hopes to stay in touch with some of them.

Stern junior Romy Koenig said she was unsure about the impact they had made until last Friday night. The Counterpoint students staying in Kiryat Malachi had invited the youngsters they worked with to meet them for games and refreshments.

“At first, five kids came, and Kiva thought that would be it,” she said. Slowly but surely, about 40 kids showed up, including five girls from my class. I played games with them, and we had a great time. It was really an amazing experience.

“When we saw them in class on Sunday, we played that game and the other kids were sad they hadn’t been there,” she said.

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Beyond sanctions and kerfuffles

A look at the Iran deal Netanyahu wants to avoid

WASHINGTON — When Benjamin Netanyahu faces the Congress next month, two things are unlikely to come up in his speech: a consideration of diplomatic protocol and an analysis of the efficacy of sanctions.

Media attention before the speech has focused on the diplomatic crisis set off by the invitation to the Israeli prime minister from U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who kept President Barack Obama in the dark, and the ensuing political tussle between backers and opponents of new sanctions on Iran.

But Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington who coordinated the invitation with Boehner, has made it clear that Netanyahu’s focus on March 3 will be on the bigger picture: what Netanyahu thinks will be a bad nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 nations, the sobriquet for the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany, and Britain.


French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”


When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”



Israel launching drive to void Goldstone Report

WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would launch an international campaign to cancel the Goldstone Report after its author, ex-South African Judge Richard Goldstone, wrote in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post that Israel did not intentionally target civilians as a policy during the Gaza War, withdrawing a critical allegation in the report.

Netanyahu said he had asked his security adviser, Ya’akov Amidror, to establish a committee focused on “minimizing the damage caused” by the report.


Facebook and Zuckerberg does an about-face and deletes Palestinian page calling for a Third Intifada

Following widespread criticism, a Facebook page calling for a third Palestinian intifada against Israel was removed on March 29. On the Facebook page, Palestinians were urged to launch street protests following Friday May 15 and begin an uprising as modelled by similar uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan. Killing Jews en masse was emphasized.

According to the Facebook page, “Judgment Day will be brought upon us only once the Muslims have killed all of the Jews.” The page had more than 340,000 fans. However, even while the page was removed, a new page now exists in its place with the same name,  “Third Palestinian Intifada.”


Did heated rhetoric play role in shooting of Giffords?

WASHINGTON – The 8th District in southern Arizona represented by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords comprises liberal Tucson and its rural hinterlands, which means moderation is a must. But it also means that spirits and tensions run high.

Giffords’ office in Tucson was ransacked in March following her vote for health care reform — a vote the Democrat told reporters that she would cast even if it meant her career. She refused to be cowed, but she also took aim at the hyped rhetoric. She cast the back-and-forth as part of the democratic process.

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