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In an increasingly globalized world, Israelis are feeling the pressure to improve their English proficiency - and their secret weapon may be new young immigrants from North America.
A 14-month Teachers for Israel program, which has been developed by the Jewish Agency, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Absorption and Nefesh B'Nefesh, will allow North American students with a bachelor's degree to immigrate to Israel while becoming English teachers. The program, in which students are supported by a stipend, launches this summer for the inaugural class of 50 students, who will begin a five-month Ulpan followed by teacher certificate courses and a paid internship in a small Israeli classroom.
"It is the most important language in the world," said Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the Jewish Agency. "If you don't know English you are not going to progress as fast as you'd like to because it's going to keep you back."
The Ministry of Education wishes to bring 1,000 English teachers to Israel.
Dr. Niron Hashai, head of the executive master's in business administration program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said English was essential to surviving in the business world.
"Half of Israel's GDP is on exports," said Hashai, who teaches an international business course. "You will do it better, will have better negotiation skills, avoid misunderstandings rooted in language or cultural gaps. Everything is easier."
Hashai said he started requiring presentations and projects to be completed in English last year, and that his students' final reports must be written in English. He said he wanted to transition to English-only lectures next year.
Noting the role of the English language in the business world, Hashai said the Teachers of Israel program would be a good start for Israeli students.
"I think this is of utmost importance, to do this for everyone, even for myself," he said. "English is not the only thing that counts, but why disadvantage our position?"
The business climate in the US also could factor into graduates' decisions to participate in the program.
Benn Waters, 23, originally of Boston, Massachusetts, said he chose to do the program because it offered an environment in which everyone would share the same experience. Waters, who said news of the program expedited his plans to make aliya, added that he had many friends at home without jobs waiting to hear his feedback on the program.
"When I look at a lot of my friends from school who just graduated, very few can say they know what they're doing for the next two or three years of their lives," he said.
Although the program is new, the structure and curriculum is time-tested. Ulpan has existed for years, as have the David Yellin College in Jerusalem and the Lewinsky College in Tel Aviv, where the participants will earn their teaching certifications.
Jankelowitz said the Jewish Agency had put a lot of emphasis on bringing more immigrants from North America, although it still focused on attracting those from distressed countries. He said Israel used to be a coveted destination for American students, but had fallen in rank since the Soviet Union dissolved and Americans opened up to the concept of study abroad.
This program, Jankelowitz said, would help reunite American students' ties with Israel. And in this time of economic hardship in the US, the program might have an impact on immigration.
"It's a way to get new immigrants to come to Israel and at the same time they have a job that is in demand," he said. "It's two-fold. On the one hand, the role of the Jewish Agency is to facilitate immigration. But on the other hand, immigrants have to have jobs. It's something tangible."