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To Be Part of the Land

Updated: Apr 2

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, an after-school program serving low-income children, many of whom are Ethiopian immigrants. My job was to help them with English. Mercaz Klass is a bit off the beaten track, only about 20 minutes bus ride outside the German colony, but very much outside the typical tourists journey.

How hard could 3 hours per day be? I’m a pretty hard worker so anything less than a full 40-50 hour week seems pretty light. This is a sabbatical after all. But the fact is, it is hard work. You are working with a wonderful group of kids, but you have to deal with the fact that 1) they often struggle with English, 2) don’t like it (related to #1) and 3) have inadequate materials to help them. And I’m not a teacher after all. So I was just winging it, with only limited Hebrew and a desire to help at my side.

After a couple of days of adjusting, I learned a few things. I could make a real difference. Maybe that was by helping to improve my students’ English just a bit. Or maybe it was connecting with the kids on a personal level. I helped tutor around 10 kids over a month period, ranging in age from about 10 to 20 years old. For the older kids, it was about improving their ability to talk. With the youngest, 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?

I’m not sure I got the answer to that question after a month. But I know I helped. For one student who could not tackle his schoolwork, I found some things he could master. That gave him confidence that he could succeed, at least sometimes. I know for myself doing Ulpan, if I didn’t have some successes, I don’t want to keep studying. And why would the students I work with be any different?

What was really 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 I met, 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 that there were many Ethiopian immigrants attending the program I worked at. So they wanted to know about what I thought of them. Ethiopian-immigrants are a hot topic in Israel right now.

What it did was make me someone Israelis would engage on at a different level than if I just said I was here for a month, touring the country. In that case, they might have asked how I liked Masada or what I thought of the Golan Heights. Or asked about what’s going on in the U.S.? Good questions, but not ones they really care about in their life. But programs like Mercaz Klass and Ethiopian immigrants assimilation into Israel 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 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 and being part of a real community is a more powerful experience than I’ve had before. On my last day, one of my students realized he wouldn’t see me after that day. So he asked if we could exchange phone numbers. His mom told him about the time difference. He was a bit young to understand the difficulties of me helping him by Skype. I couldn’t draw up word puzzles on a whiteboard on Skype…at least not easily. But I realized that in a month, I’d made a real connection to him. I’d worked with a 19-year old girl who is struggling to speak proper enough English to have a successful career in business. I offered to Skype with her if she wants to keep talking in English. Or maybe the next volunteer will come and take over my place with both of them. I would love to keep in contact, but in many ways the best answer may be for a new volunteer to take my place. Maybe it will be you.

Don G, Kansas City  May 2015

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