Written by Don Goldman, Guest Columnist
Originally Published: Thursday, 30 July 2015 12:03 (The Chronicle)
When I planned a sabbatical in Israel, I was looking for a break from my real life. But I also wanted to do something in Israel that would let me go beyond being a tourist and experience just a bit of real Israeli life. The core of my month-long sabbatical in Israel was spent volunteering at Mercaz Klass, helping low-income children learn English. This after-school program is a bit off the beaten track, only about 20-minute bus ride outside the German colony in Jerusalem, but very much outside the typical tourist’s journey.
How hard could three hours volunteering per day be? It turns out that if you are working with kids who are really struggling with English, not highly motivated and have terrible materials, it can be pretty challenging. But it can also be pretty rewarding especially when you begin to realize you’ve made a real connection with some.
After what I thought had been a really good session with one student, I heard him speaking to the center director — sounding very upset. Since I couldn’t keep up with his high-speed Hebrew, it was only after she explained to me more slowly that I realized he was upset because he wasn’t scheduled with me again until the following week. After all, he told the director, he was finally making some progress and didn’t want to stop. On one of my final days, one of my younger students was shocked to realize this would be my last day with him. He asked (in Hebrew, of course) for my telephone number so we could keep in touch. I wasn’t really sure I was making a lot of progress with him, but he thought the connection was real and didn’t want to give it up.
I helped tutor 10 kids over four weeks, ranging in age from 10 to 20 years old. For the older kids, it was about improving their ability to speak English. With the younger, it was about helping them learn how to write. And the kids in the middle, they were the greatest challenge. They were often behind their class in English and so really challenged to write using complex English grammar or translate difficult words. But if they can only understand simple English, how do you help them with that in an hour a day without decent textbooks? I’m not sure I fully got the answer to that question, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
What was most interesting to me about my experiences was the way many Israelis treated me when I told them about the work I was doing. Sometimes, it was incredulity. Why would you want to be working on your sabbatical? Shouldn’t you go to the beach or tour? But mostly it was with interest. Whether it was at Ulpan or at coffee or lunch with Israelis, they actually wanted to know what I thought about my experiences. They would tell me stories about the education system as they knew it and ask how what I saw fit into that. They knew there were many Ethiopian immigrants attending the program where I volunteered. So they wanted to know what I thought of their situation. Ethiopian immigrants are a hot topic in Israel right now.
Volunteering at Mercaz Klass made me someone Israelis would engage with at a different level than if I just said I was visiting for a month, touring the country. In that case, they might have asked how I liked Masada or what I thought of Yad Vashem. Good questions, but not ones they really care about in their life. But topics like Mercaz Klass and Ethiopian immigrants assimilating into Israeli society are real issues for them. So they care about what I saw and would engage with me fully. And that helped me to get a glimpse of real Israeli society. I know it’s just a glimpse. But it was more than I’ve ever had before. And it gave me some insight into what it would be like to live here.
Touring and traveling are great. I do that a lot myself. But going to Israel and volunteering — being part of a real community is a more powerful experience than I’ve had before. I probably won’t keep in touch with any of my former students. The time difference and practicalities of life will prevent that. The good news for them is there were two volunteers to take my place after I left. But more are always needed. What a great opportunity to help some children or others who need your help and have a wonderful experience.
Skilled Volunteers for Israel’s network of over 60 non-profit partners reflects the diversity of Israel. Placement services include matching the volunteer with an Israeli organization, developing a volunteer project that includes the responsibilities and schedule associated with the volunteer placement and providing support before and during the volunteer experience. For more information on becoming a “Skilled Volunteer” like me, visit www.skillvolunteerisrael.org.
Don Goldman is executive director of Jewish Family Services.