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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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Laughing with Joan

I made Joan Rivers laugh.

Of course she made me laugh, like she did to millions of others through her decades-long, often unfiltered, and ever-funny career, but yes, I made Joan Rivers laugh.

At the time, I was working at the celebrity-obsessed New York Post, and as the features writer for its women’s section, I had reason to ring up the raspy-voiced, Brooklyn-born blonde for a quickie. I had to grab a quote for some story that I was writing. As I recall, the conversation had turned to food, a favorite subject of the Jewish woman on my end of the phone, and, apparently, of that Jewish woman on the other end as well. Joan told me that she just adored the creamed spinach served at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant, Peter Luger’s — a must-have accompaniment to its famous and robust steaks. Joan told me she would dine there with a hairdresser-to-the-stars, the late Kenneth Battelle. (She kept her physique petite with this practice: She never ate anything after 3 p.m. If she did find herself dining with someone, she popped Altoids to keep her mouth busy.)

 

Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

Killed in the name of God

Fair Lawn scholar studies medieval Jewish child martyrs

“Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago,” read the headline in ads signed by Elie Wiesel and placed in newspapers around the world by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Our World organization. “Now it’s Hamas’ turn.”

But that may be stretching the truth.

In the 12th century — not even a thousand years ago, making it recent by the standards of Jewish history — Jews boasted of making martyrs of their children, deliberately killing them rather than allowing them to be converted to Christianity.

It was an era in which Jews were besieged by Christian mobs demanding their conversion or death, a horror recalled by the radical jihadist army of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its massacres of non-Muslims.

 

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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?

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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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