Sometimes you just walk into a place and know that one person can really make a difference. I felt that immediately when I first met the director, Judith bar Zemer, at “Mercaz Klass” learning center in the Katamon Gonen neighborhood of Jerusalem. Under Judith’s tutelage, the children from ages 6 through 18 receive tutoring in math, science, Hebrew, English and reading. But more than that, they receive a steady dose of love from this indefatigable woman who for over 31 years has guided the after-school center to where it is today; a permanent fixture in an immigrant community where children and adults receive education and guidance in an ever-changing Israeli society.
The Kagan Learning Center was established in 1968 by WIZO UK in honor of the pediatrician, Dr. Helena Kagan. Dr. Kagan, the pioneer of preventive medicine for children in Israel, became aware that a number of young people were wandering the streets of Jerusalem instead of attending school. Applying her preventive approach, she arranged coaching sessions for the youngsters. As this aspect of her work became known, she received donations from friends, and a trust fund, known as Keren Kagan was set up. This trust funded the Kagan Learning Centre established in her honor in 1968 by WIZO UK.
The community is made up of immigrants from primarily Ethiopia and Russia. As with all first generation children, they are a bridge between the world they and their parents left behind and the new world they entered when they made Aliyah to Israel. Often the children serve as helpers to their parents who may not have mastered enough Hebrew to negotiate day-to-day life in a new country. During the current school year, there were about 115 children enrolled at the learning center, staffed by 14 part-time paid teachers and many, many more volunteer teachers. All the lessons are given on a one-on-one basis. The families usually pay a modest fee on a sliding scale, which shows their commitment to their children.
I tutored English to mostly high school girls that were preparing for their English matriculation exams which are very, very rigorous. They were so motivated to excel and advance so they could help their parents have a better life. I was humbled by their determination to succeed. Many shared with me about their families from Ethiopia, about their language “Amharic”, and about their dreams and hopes for a better future. One very impressive teenage girl from an Ethiopian immigrant family was selected to participate in an interfaith dialogue seminar in San Diego, California. Often, I was translating for them from English to Hebrew and explaining how to use certain words in English. In turn, they corrected my Hebrew grammar and helped me improve in what is a foreign language for me. It was truly a win-win for all!
As I was set to return to the U.S. in March, children of all ages were busy preparing for the annual Purim carnival and creating murals and other crafts. Other teens came by in the afternoons for music jam sessions and youth clubs. Mercaz Klass is a real “happening” place for the community and a source of much pride. There is a great need to bring the children into the program during the first grade, and to have them continue through high school. The high school students need more help in practicing spoken English. Passing the English matriculation exam is a passport to a better future in Israel.
Gail Rubin J.D. volunteer in February/March 2016