Travel

Times and Places: Teaching and learning as a volunteer in Israel

by Marlyn Silverstone

It’s not the school bell that marks the end of a lesson, but the rousing rendering of the popular song, Ma asita hayom?*, blasted every 50 minutes over the sound system. Where I sit, on a bench in the playground, nothing changes: teenage girls continue to talk, joke and discuss in groups or one-on-one.

Some are concerned that my classroom is a bench but I don’t mind. On these mild, sunny days of winter, it’s more pleasant under the roof of heaven. And besides, I like to look at the beautiful orange tree in the yard. Every morning a woman diligently sweeps away the ones that have spattered on the concrete.

The school building is dilapidated.

Most of it needs a coat of paint. There’s nothing in the classrooms except rows of old desks. There is barely room to sit during breaks in the staff room, bursting with 60 busy teachers.

Why am I sitting in a woollen coat on a bench in the yard? I’m tutoring students in English at a religious secondary school for 380 girls in Bat Yam, a city on the coast, south of Tel Aviv. The municipality agreed to host volunteers from Skilled Volunteers for Israel, an organization that directs the abilities and good intentions of North American retirees to the enhancement of Israel.

I’m one such retiree and I served in this school two mornings a week. At 8 a.m., I’d leave my studio on Tel Aviv’s renowned Dizengoff, just a block away from the terrorist attack that took two young lives this January**, and walk to the bus stop for Bat Yam. It’s a 40-minute ride and one that, even after two-dozen trips, is still fascinating. The bus goes south through busy streets until it veers west, where the Mediterranean Sea and its promenade comes into glorious view. Even in winter, there are many surfers and joggers along the sea front.

The bus continues its route to the Carmel Market, a rundown area of dilapidated but fully stocked stores and stalls. Within one bus stop the cityscape changes dramatically to the luxurious Dan Hotel. The juxtaposition of these two bus stops never fails to make me smile. Then the bus continues to Yaffo and the flea market.

Along with the views, the passengers are fascinating. The bus lurches along and people watch as you find a seat before you lose your balance.

If the driver doesn’t keep the door open long enough for a senior to get off, everyone in the bus gets involved. “Nehag, nehag” (driver, driver), they’ll call out from all over the bus. That’s one thing I love about Israel.

People are intensely engaged in what they’re doing and always doing something. They’re not afraid to take the initiative or disregard rules.

People weave through the streets and sidewalks on bicycles and scooters, the old kind that you propel with one foot. And I’ve seen Chassidim on roller blades in the main thoroughfares, looking for someone to pray with them.

In Tel Aviv and Bat Yam, market shops are bursting. There are hundreds of shoe stores, hairdressers, and fruit and vegetable stores with 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.

Eating is serious business in Israel — a national pastime joyfully pursued. At 11:30 a.m., wherever you are, you can see the population preparing for lunch. In Tel Aviv, the many restaurants, spilling out onto the sidewalks, are always full. Elsewhere in less prosperous neighbourhoods, people enjoy a falafel with gusto.

My task as a volunteer is to coach students in English. During my seven weeks at the school, 15 girls were referred by their teacher or had expressed a desire for tutoring. The girls, 15 to 17, were preparing for the matriculation exam.

Many had lost confidence and motivation. My job was to rekindle them. I discovered each dreamt of going to New York to shop. They understood they would need English for that. They also knew that to have a decent job in Israel, English is required. Rather than drill them in vocabulary, as their teacher suggested, I encouraged them to talk about what they knew and what interested them. The girls sought words to tell me about their families, their social life, and their aspirations. I wrote down what they said and asked them to take it home and read it. I encouraged them to watch television programs with English subtitles.

My approach, according to the teacher, met with some success. And I felt privileged to spend time with the girls, who were delightful, polite and respectful. All spoke positively of their school, were fond of the teachers, who in turn cared deeply about them.

The school offers a warm environment where the girls learn a lot about how to live. I appreciated the many gestures of loving kindness among the students, and between the students and teachers.

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The teachers are nurturers. I observed an example of that in the staffroom one day at break time. A younger student came to the entrance with a package of soup to which boiling water had to be added. The teachers closest to the entrance, engaged in scheduling, stopped what they were doing. One of them added the water to the soup, and then returned it to the student. I could see that this type of help is common.

Among the girls I coached, there were a number of Ethiopians. They talked to me about the racism they experience. In the school, they said, there’s no racism but if they even go to the park, they are often addressed as Shachor (black). These girls are, bright and beautiful and should be treasured. 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.

Life in Israel is full of surprises. I had a pleasant one when, as a visitor, I sought medical help for a cough. A doctor in a private clinic referred me to Terem, a public clinic for refugees and visitors in the central bus station in Tel-Aviv. I arrived at 8 a.m. with my passport. A half dozen people, Africans with small children, were waiting to see the doctor. Within an hour, I saw the doctor, received a diagnosis and was given a prescription. The fee is universal: everyone pays less than $7.

I read a paper, framed on the wall, about the founder of the clinic, Dr. David Applebaum. Born in the U.S., Dr. Applebaum was an ordained rabbi and a physician. In Israel, he made an enormous contribution to emergency medical care by creating the Terem medical centers to reduce the volume of requests at hospital emergency rooms. Dr. Applebaum was also the chief of the emergency department at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Along with his 20-year-old daughter, he was murdered in 2003, in a terrorist attack on the Café Hillel in Jerusalem. His daughter was to be married the next day. Dr. Applebaum was 51.

Along with coaching, I also volunteered once a week at a hospital/rehab centre where I observed staff interacting with patients with loving kindness. For example, residents were encouraged to dress in their own clothes, but, if they felt more comfortable, staff let them stay in their pyjamas. Staff took pains to encourage residents to participate in the centre’s many activities. And, when it came to feeding those who needed help, the dishes offered looked tasty and the help was given kindly.

There is no doubt that being a volunteer for Skilled Volunteers for Israel enriched my two-month stay. It made me feel integral to the society, not an outsider. The staff of Skilled Volunteers are kind, thoughtful and professional. I learned a lot and met gracious, delightful people including fellow volunteers.

Yes, I would do it again.

NOTES: *Ma asita hayom? (What did you do today?), song by Aaron Razel.
**On January 1, 2016, a gunman opened fire on several businesses on Dizengoff Street, in Tel Aviv, killing two people and injuring seven others. He also killed a taxi driver while fleeing.

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