Fully Immersed in Israeli Society

Posted on March 14, 2019

When one has a few months one their hands with no children at home for the first time in years, there is an air of freedom that creeps in. Some would embrace this new status with deep cleaning; others would throw themselves into their work; and some would wish everyone well, but sit and stare at the four walls until the children come home.

As an introvert, I was not sure what to do, but none of these options sounded like a good plan for me. My Israeli friends suggested that I come visit Israel for longer than my usual routine of a 10-12 day visit.  They suggested that I consider doing something other than touring as I’ve seen the tourist places many many times already. Friends suggested that I come to “live like an Israeli for a bit and see what it’s like.”

This idea started to sound interesting, but what would I do all day?

I had to think of a plan. I scoured the internet and discovered there were few English-speaking volunteer opportunities for adults in Israel. I found lots of programs geared to college and post college age, but few for adults. Thinking that maybe I would take classes instead of volunteering also proved challenging. Many classes I found were also for the 35 and younger crowd. I was frustrated.

Then I stumbled across the website for Skilled Volunteers for Israel (SVFI). Interesting.

I have been working with children who have many different types of challenges since I was 18. The idea of volunteering in a school made sense to me. So, I just called and spoke with the Executive Director for SVFI, Marla Gamoran. Marla was so kind. She and I talked about my background and the kinds of volunteer placements that SVFI had in Israel.

In the end, I applied to volunteer through SVFI and everything all worked out nicely.  The Yomim Tovim (high holidays) fell early during the Fall of 2018. I was able to arrive in Israel ahead of my volunteer assignment to get settled with the time zone, see my friends, go to a few lectures, enjoy my favorite places and even see some new places, that only my friends who live there go to, not the typical tourist spots. I even discovered and attended a few comedy shows in English!

Three and a half weeks into my visit, I was fully immersed in Israeli society as a functioning member of the community. I had my own beach chairs, a shopping cart, learned how to use the app for the trains and buses and even the Israeli taxi app, Gett, (like uber) plus a bus pass! I was all set.

I was placed at a school in Bat Yam, a city just south of Tel Aviv.  The school where I volunteered was only a 20 minute walk from my apartment.  Each morning the I breathed in the beautiful sea air on my walk to work. Each morning I stopped at the local coffee shop, Aroma, on the corner right by the school. Aroma’s Margalit greeted me each morning with a big smile and “Shalom!”

At the school, I met with the English teacher each morning to review which students needed extra help. I was volunteering to teach Israeli students English, but the students also taught me! I could speak enough Hebrew to talk to my students but with plenty of mistakes.  They LOVED correcting me and I didn’t mind. We all had fun teaching and learning from each other. I also learned a lot about the education system in Israel.

Each day I was assigned two to three children. My students were learning to read and to answer questions about their readings.  I taught them a strategy to TAG the question, the same strategy I taught to my public school special needs students.  I was able to help each student at each students’ level so my students could learn and build on their skills.

I helped the students to learn to answer questions in full sentences.  For example, in response to the question, Where did the boy live? The answer is not, on the farm; The answer is, The boy lived on the farm.This teaches the students how to turn the question around and make it into a statement. It also teaches them to begin with a capital letter, and other grammar rules.  used white boards where I could show these strategies visually using different colors and point out some of other the subtle differences needed in a sentence.

With students who were capable, I helped guide them to build from the many questions that were “right there” (the ones they could go back into the story and find), to higher order questions that helped them to draw conclusions, make inferences and so on. What season was it? How do you know? I really honed in on my experience as a Special Educator for these lessons.

Being a volunteer had its challenges. Each day I was given the students’ assignments. I did ask if I could know assignments ahead of time, or even the day before so I could plan, instead of teaching “off the cuff,” but this did not happen. What I have learned is that this is actually very characteristic of Israeli culture. Israelis are not planners the way Americans are. In fact, this subject was included within comedy routine at one of the comedy clubs I went to in Tel Aviv. My Israeli friend (who is originally from Chicago by the way) didn’t see the humor. I was hysterically laughing. So this is a “thing”.

I feel so fortunate and appreciative to have been part of The Skilled Volunteer for Israel program. I most likely would have never visited this area of Israel.  It has opened my eyes and has started my search for other areas that I have not been to. Maybe for another opportunity or to just explore.

Going on tour is wonderful, but living in Israel allowed me to breathe, feel and see the country through a new lens. I grew as a person and experienced Israel in a new cultural light. I have always loved Israel. I have been many times, on tour and a few times not on tour, but with friends or family. This time I was completely on my own. What a different experience! I could not have anticipated any of this before I came.