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A Different Kind Of Camp: An Interview with Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Kenneth Brander

Yael Selter of Wesley Hills, NY (right) poses with a camper from Dimona while sifting through pottery shards at an archeological dig site in Jerusalem.

Yael Selter of Wesley Hills, NY (right) poses with a camper from Dimona while sifting through pottery shards at an archeological dig site in Jerusalem.

Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future seems to expand with each passing year.

Founded in 2005, the Center – among other activities – now educates hundreds of ordained rabbis through its Rabbinic Training Placement and Continuing Education program; sends 1,000 students every year to help communities around the world through its Experiential Education and Service Learning program; makes 60,000 shiurim of YU rabbis and others available online through YUTorah.org; helps YU students and alumni find their Intended through YUConnects.org; and sets up kollelim around the country through its Community Initiatives program.

This summer, the Center ran day camps in five Israeli development towns: Dimona, Arad, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, and Beersheba. Staffed by 60 YU students, the camps serviced over 350 Israeli children.

The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the Center’s dean, about the summer camps.

The Jewish Press: What was the logic behind Yeshiva University students from America organizing summer camps in Israel?

Rabbi Brander: One of the things that attracted the campers to our programs – each one was sold out and there were waiting lists – was the fact that you had American students coming over to Israel. It was cool that they were American.

Some of these kids have lived very challenging lives; they come from poor homes, foster homes, one-parent homes, etc. I’ll give you an example. We took the campers from Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi to the airport to welcome in a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight; most of them had never been to an airport before.

Is the poverty really that bad in these cities?

There’s a significant divide between the wealth in the center of Israel and the south of Israel. The south is a very, very poor area. In a place like Dimona, two out of every three children are beneath the poverty line, which is significantly lower than the American poverty line.

One day, one of the kids from Dimona took a donkey to travel to camp. That’s what we’re talking about.

What’s the purpose of these camps?

They’re English-immersive summer camps. So, for example, we’ll take mishnayos and translate them into English.

Our other thing is that we want to build the campers’ self-esteem because they have very poor self-esteem. They’ve been told by everybody that they can’t accomplish – that for the rest of their lives they’re going to live in this cycle of poverty. But then, all of a sudden, they see – through arts and crafts, martial arts, dance, etc. – that they actually have skills and talents.

Are all the campers in the “poor self-esteem” or “troubled homes” categories?

They all come from challenging situations – some of the cities more than others. The population in Arad is nowhere near as financially challenged as the populations in the other camps. I would not put Arad and Dimona in the same category as Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and Beersheba.

In the latter cities, we only worked with kids who were basically on the cusp of failing out of school, who are classified by their schools as being in the “Nachshon group.” In Dimona and Arad, though, we had a mixture of all different kinds of kids.

Were these campers mostly Sephardim? Ashkenazim? Russian? Ethiopian?

It’s a klal Yisrael program. You have everyone. Development towns such as the ones we were in have a lot more Ethiopians and Russians than maybe other towns, but it’s a mixture….

You’ll also have kids who wear kippot along with kids who don’t. But I have to tell you – it’s such an unbelievable thing to see – even the kids who don’t wear kippot are very traditionally inclined. For example, they’ll say a berachah before they eat or they’ll put on tefillin in the morning. It’s an interesting perspective, which I don’t think we see as much in America.

What ages are the campers and what are the hours of these camps?

Ages 12 through 16 or 17. They start at eight in the morning and go to very late in the afternoon. But our students live in the towns, so the relationship doesn’t end at the end of the day. They hang out with our students on Shabbos or they’ll join us for Seudat Shlishit. It’s a fully immersive experience.

Do you teach Judaism in these camps or are they just “fun” camps?

We always make sure Jewish ideals are being focused on. So if we’re teaching English, we’ll focus on various Jewish morals and ideals.

But the best way for them to be sensitive about Torah is to realize that these 60 Yeshiva University students are Torah-observant Jews. … They’re seeing role models, and I think that’s the best way for people to explore their Jewish experience and realize there’s something serious about being connected to Judaism. We don’t hit them over the head with it. We basically share it with love, and I think it’s embraced with love.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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