It’s not the school bell that marks the end of the lesson. The bell has been replaced by the rousing rendering of a popular song, “Ma Asita Hayom,”* blasted over the sound system every fifty minutes. Its sudden boom may generate activity in the classrooms. Where I sit, on a bench in the playground, nothing changes. Around the periphery, teenage girls continue to talk and joke around or have serious discussions, in groups or one-on-one.
Some people are concerned that my classroom is a bench in the schoolyard. Actually I don’t mind that at all. On these mild, sunny wintry days, it’s more pleasant under the roof of heaven. And besides, there’s a great orange tree in the yard, beautiful to look at but with oranges inaccessibly high. Every morning a woman diligently sweeps away those that have spattered on the concrete below. The building is dilapidated and desperately in need of a coat of paint. There’s nothing in the classrooms but rows of beaten-up desks, perhaps not quite dating back to the British Mandate, but certainly in use for decades. The school toilets, including those of the teachers, if transported to North America would lead to a boycott, if not a general strike. In the staffroom, accommodating up to sixty teachers and bursting with activity, there is barely room to sit during the breaks.
So what am I doing, a white haired senior woman in a woollen coat, at my bench in the schoolyard? I’m tutoring students in English. The school, a religious secondary school serving 380 girls, belongs to the municipality of Bat Yam, a sprawling city on the coast, just south of Tel-Aviv. The municipality agreed to host volunteers sent through, Skilled Volunteers for Israel, which directs the abilities and good intentions of North American retirees to the enhancement of our beloved medinah.
I’m one such retiree and I serve in the school two mornings a week. At eight a.m., I leave my studio apartment on Tel-Aviv’s renowned Dizengoff Street – just a block away from the terrorist attack that took two young lives this January 1st –and walk to the stop for the bus to Bat Yam. It’s a forty minute ride and one that even after two dozen trips, is still fascinating. The bus goes south through busy streets until it veers west and the Mediterranean Sea with its state-of –the- art promenade in glorious view. Even in the winter there are many joggers on the sea front and people are surfing the waves. The bus continues its route to the Carmel Market, a rundown area of dilapidated but fully stocked stores for the more thrifty shoppers. In one bus stop the cityscape changes dramatically. The stop after the market is the Dan Hotel, a palace of a building providing luxury to the affluent. The juxtaposition of the two bus stops never fails to make me smile. Then the bus continues to Yaffo and the flea market – Shuk Hapishpishim. What a wonderful name for the humble flea! Is it Mr. Ben Yehuda whom we have to thank for it?
As well as the route and the views from the bus, the interaction of the passengers is also fascinating. The bus lurches along and people watch as you find a seat quickly before you lose your balance. All are engaged in what is going on around them. If, for example, the driver doesn’t keep the door open long enough for an elderly person to get off, everyone in the bus will get involved. “Nehag, nehag,” (Driver, Driver) they’ll call out from all over the bus.
That’s one thing I love about being in Israel. People are intensely engaged in what they’re doing and always doing something. They’re not afraid to take the initiative or to disregard rules. For transport, they weave through the streets and sidewalks on bicycles and scooters, the old kind that you have to propel with your foot. On such a scooter, I’ve seen men convey their children to school. And I’ve seen full-bearded chasidim on roller blades in the main thoroughfares, looking for someone ready to don tefillin. In Tel-Aviv and in Bat Yam, shops in sprawling market areas are bursting at the seams with merchandise. There are so many businesses, hundreds or thousands of shoe stores and hairdressers and fruit and vegetable stores all with their storefronts impeccably tended but usually bereft of customers. I reckon that each resident of Tel-Aviv would have to buy 25 pairs of shoes every year for all of the shoe businesses to survive. Shoppers are as lively as the storekeepers. How often I have paused to observe a very old man or woman selecting produce at a fruit stall, bending, and contorting his or her ancient fragile body just to select an apple. Eating is a very serious business in Israel, a national pastime joyfully pursued. At 11.30a.m., wherever you are, you can see the population preparing for lunch. In Tel-Aviv, the multitude of restaurants that spill out on to the sidewalks are always full. In less prosperous neighborhoods, people enjoy a falafel with equal gusto.
My task as a volunteer is to coach students in English. During my seven weeks at the school, I’ve spent time with about 15 girls who have been referred by their teacher or have expressed a desire to come to me for coaching. The girls are aged between 15 and 17 years and are preparing for the Bagrut, the national matriculation exam. Many of them, exposed to the dull texts of Bagrut interpretation, have lost their confidence and their motivation. My job, as I see it, is to rekindle their confidence and interest in learning. All of them, I discover, dream of going to New York to shop. They understand that they’ll need English for that. They also know that to have a decent job in Israel, English is required. Rather than drill them in vocabulary, as their teacher suggested, I encourage them to talk about what they know and what interests them. If you are to learn to speak in a foreign language, it is easier to speak about what you know. The girls seek the words that allow them to tell me about their families, their social life and their aspirations. I write down what they say and ask them to take it home and read it. I also encourage them to watch television programs with English subtitles.
My approach, according to the teacher, is meeting with some success I feel privileged to spend time with the girls. They are delightful girls, polite and respectful and it is a pleasure to get to know them. All of them speak positively of their school. They are very fond of the teachers, who, for their part seem to care very deeply about them. Despite the shabbiness of the setting, the school offers a warm environment in which the girls learn a lot about how to live. The teachers are nurturers. I observed an example of that in the staffroom one day at break time. A younger student, small and timid, came to the entrance with a package of noodle soup to which boiling water had to be added. The teachers who were closest to the entrance, intensely engaged in scheduling, immediately stopped what they were doing. One of them went to the other end of the room to add the water to the soup, and then graciously returned it to the student. From the casualness of the transaction, I could see that this type of help is a common occurrence.
Thank you from Bat Yam
Among the girls whom I coach, there are a number of Ethiopians. They talk to me about the racism to which they are constantly exposed. In the school, they say, there’s no racism but if they even go to the park, they are often addressed as “Shachor” (black). I have heard about discrimination in Israel before but was inclined to minimize it. These girls, bright and beautiful and bringing so much to the country, should only be treasured and biting back my tears, I tell them so. Their teacher, Michal, confirms what the girls have said, as does Esther, the head of education for Bat Yam. The Ethiopian population in Israel is not being well absorbed.
During the time that I have spent in the school, I have appreciated many gestures of loving kindness among the students, and between the students and the teachers. The staff and the students are very kind to me, particularly Michal, the teacher with whom I work and the school principal. I don’t believe that the contribution that I have made is in any way equal to the appreciation shown me.
Life in Israel is full of surprises. A few weeks into my visit, I had developed a terrible cough and I thought it necessary to consult a physician. A doctor in a private clinic referred me to Terem, a public service for refugees and visitors, located in the central bus station in Tel-Aviv. Having phoned the evening before, I arrived next morning at 8:00 a.m. with my passport. A half dozen people, Africans with small children, waited to see the doctor. We were seen in order of arrival. Within an hour, I had seen the doctor, and had received a diagnosis and a prescription. The fee was universal; everyone paid 20 shekels, less than seven Canadian dollars.
As well as my services in the school, I volunteer one day a week at a hospital/ rehab center where I visit with some residents. In this capacity, I’m able to observe the interaction of staff with patients and once again, I see loving kindness. This is expressed in a multitude of small gestures, in the generosity and understanding that are shown to residents. For example, they are encouraged to dress in their own clothes, but, if they feel more comfortable, they can stay in their pyjamas, which are made of cotton and were given to them by the hospital. There are many activities to keep the residents busy and staff take pains to encourage them to participate. When it comes to feeding those who cannot eat without help, the dishes that are offered looked very tasty, and the help is given kindly, with no rushing.
There is no doubt in my mind that being a volunteer for Skilled Volunteers for Israel immeasurably enriched my two-month stay in Israel. Being a volunteer made me feel part of the society, not an outsider. I had a job to which I could channel my energies, and a destination when I got on the bus. The staff of Skilled Volunteers are kind, thoughtful and extremely professional. I learned a lot and met gracious, delightful people, including fellow volunteers.
Yes, I would do it again.
Skilled Volunteers Marlyn and Adah meet with Ester Perron, Deputy Mayor of Bat Yam
*Ma asita hayom?( What did you do today) song by Aaron Razel