Tuesday, June 16, 1998

Aliyah: Building Bridges Through Teaching

Last summer I was finally able to fulfill a life-long dream of coming to live in Israel, by becoming a part of the Teach And Study Program [TASP].

Through TASP, a program of the City of Tel-Aviv-Yafo and the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, I have been teaching English half-time at an Israeli elementary school, as well as studying for a master's degree in applied linguistics.

I had worked in both Jewish and public schools.But still, I wasn't sure what to expect. In the U.S., there is usually a "honeymoon" period at the beginning of the school year, a period of students following the teacher's every instruction. Then, after about two weeks, the students begin to test the teacher. How would the students test me? How would Ireact? I knew my way around a classroom, or at least an American classroom. I was told that I would be co-teaching for awhile, to get acclimated, a good idea. In my life, I had met Jews from all over the world. Thus, I knew to accept that I would be walking into a classroom culture different to the one I had been used to. I was to teach in a traditionally Mizrachi neighborhood, mostly Iraqi, but also Moroccan, Persian and Yemenite. However, over the past five years many olim hadashim (new immigrants) from the former Soviet Union had moved into the neighborhood. There had been tension between old and new, in the beginning, with the schools not having been able to escape its effects. The situation became more relaxed over the years. Yet, after I was informed of my school's particular history, I was still impressed with the friendships Iwitnessed in the classroom, like the strong bond between fourth-graders like Boris, a new immigrant from Russia, and Lior, a local boy of Persian and Iraqi decent.

Whereas in the U.S., strong friendships are usually found in high school or in college, I found that in Israel, best friends often start off as best friends in first or second grade and last through and beyond service in the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces].

What I have seen take place in the classroom hasbeen highly reflective of the intimacy I see on the streets everyday, very high energy, sometimes very loud and tense, yet always with hearts of gold. In the U.S., children are taught to sit still, be quiet, and try to absorb their teacher's knowledge like a sponge.

Fortunately, the American classroom has been moving away from that approach.

In Israel, the classroom is highly dynamic. Students are often in and out of their seats, sometimes climbing on top of something, but all the while, their minds are moving just as quickly as their bodies, interacting with the teacher, with words and expressions, rarely missing a beat.

The emphasis of the Israeli classroom is to teach the students to think, and to think for themselves.

And think, they do.

Teaching and learning are not confined to theclassroom. Teachers and students carry their close relationships intorecess and extracurricular activities, where thinking, and learning,and wondering about the world never cease.

This year, I was particularly affected by anon-going discussion with a fifth-grader of mine, Shlomo, from Russia.

Very interested in learning English, he oftens takes the opportunity to engage me in conversation. I must restrain my desire to take the same opportunity with him in Hebrew, as I remember my purpose.

As each Jewish holiday would approach, Shlomowould ask me if we had Sukkot [or Hanukkah, or Tu b'Shevat, etc.] in America. I would always respond with a smile, "Why, of course, we do," implying that Judaism was not just observed in Israel, the Jewish Homeland.

But when Shlomo approached me, to ask if therewas, in fact, Purim in America, I finally put two and two together.

After a not-so-brief, dumb-founded pause, my response was as follows: "Shlomo, do you remember Purim in Russia?"

He said no.

I sat down so that it would be easier to look himin the eyes, and continued in Hebrew, "Shlomo, I know that it has been very difficult for Jews in Russia to study Torah, to celebrate the holidays, and sometimes, even to feel Jewish.

"But in the United States, England, Mexico, and Canada, and many other countries, it's much easier.

"That's one of the many reasons why it was important for you and your family to make aliyah." He just looked at me, and said in English, "Yes."

I have enjoyed the rewards of teaching for several years, but have been particularly touched by my Israeli students this year. They have learned from me, and I have learned from them.

From me, they have learned to connect to the rest of the world through the growing international language of English. From them, I have learned what it is like to come to a new country, my home.


This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal (June 16, 1998) under the title "Building Bridges Through Teaching," when I was invited to be a guest columnist for the "Federation Matters" weekly column.