Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Israel: Where We All Have Something to Give

6 Adar I 5779.

There I was, enjoying my very rich and busy retirement – publishing books, babysitting delightful grandchildren, playing “Mrs. Coach” to an adult American football team, participating in classes in Torah, Hebrew, painting, yoga and music – when Andy Armon’s letter appeared in the Neve Daniel chat list. She was seeking volunteers for a new program to help young ladies at the Orot Etzion Girls’ School to improve their English conversation skills.

I am very shy where public speaking is concerned. I have never been trained as a teacher. I am only a “boy mom,” meaning I’m learning about dealing with the personalities of girls fairly late in life, through my granddaughters. And I’m happily busy, meaning I’m not looking for more to do.

But I like Andy, and I respect her efforts at helping the community. And a little tzedakah b’guf seemed like a good idea – and it happened that Thursday mornings were free. I couldn’t talk myself out of it.

I am so glad I couldn’t. I’m having the time of my life!

The program doesn’t require the structure that scares people away from “teaching.” It’s more like mentoring. I volunteer for two sessions: I work with one 5th grade girl who has very good English that just needs a bit of polishing; and I have a group of six 6th grade girls who have very little English but lots of enthusiasm. My job is to get them to speak English with increasing confidence. No one is expecting me to make them fluent. I just have to help them to get rid of the fear of looking foolish, and to simply be willing to try.

Much like what I went through in ulpan. In fact, my Hebrew ulpan experience helps me to understand and to help these girls. I know exactly what they are feeling. They listen to my poor Hebrew as I try to explain difficult concepts; and they are receptive to my lesson that just as they don’t laugh at me, I won’t laugh at them. Week by week, they are gaining courage, and even some proficiency. (They are very proud of knowing when to add “s” to the end of a verb, and when not to, something that often stumps even adults.)

We have fun together playing word games, singing songs, playing “grocery store,” reading easy stories. For this exercise, I am permitted by the program either to use the book provided, or to come up with my own plan. I’m rather proud of this: I have taken an easy Hebrew children’s book and translated it to English for them. First, we read the Hebrew version. It is full of moral lessons, and the girls happily debate where they stand on the issues. Then, we painstakingly make our way through the English version. As I remind them that they already understand the story, they gain faith in themselves, and struggle on. Last week, I said that I look forward to when we can debate this story in English. Unexpectedly, my initially most reticent student led a discussion in very simple English, wherein each girl stated her case! I am so proud of my girls!

After our classes (which are currently 30 minutes and 50 minutes in length), we volunteers meet, each week, to share concerns and ideas. I have gained so much wisdom from these fellow volunteers. Very often, next week’s plan starts with something learned during this meeting. Best of all, the girls, the English program teachers, and especially Andy and Yael Ben-Pazi, the principal, are so supportive of our efforts.

I love this program. It is very rewarding to give back to a community that patiently helps me with my Hebrew. It feels good to be respected for something that is part of the definition of who I am: an English-language-proficient Anglo with a lot to give the next generation in Israel.

Glossary - tzedakah b'guf: charity through deeds rather than money; ulpan: intensive Hebrew language class