The Anglo angle

“If we can inspire kids to be interested in the English language, if I can give them knowledge of letters and sounds and words, that’s a step,” Hochberger says.

July 24, 2019 15:53
The Anglo angle

TALMA BROUGHT 185 American teachers to Israel this summer to teach English at disadvantaged schools throughout Israel.. (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)

‘Something very delicate is happening right now,” says Talma director and CEO Alon Futterman.
Talma, the Israel Program for Excellence in English, was founded in 2014. Its mission is to bring American teachers to Israel to teach English during the summer in the country’s social and geographic peripheries.
The program is now expanding its reach to ultra-Orthodox communities where secular learning is largely unsanctioned but not necessarily undesired.
Beginning in August and extending over the course of the next school year, haredi teachers who were trained by Talma participants will enter yeshivas to provide English lessons to ultra-Orthodox students.
“We’re doing it under the radar,” Futterman says, highlighting the sensitive nature of the initiative. “We’re not saying where... but this is making history.”
The first steps began last fall when Talma began working with an organization called KamaTech, which integrates haredi men and women into Israel’s hi-tech world through employment training and opportunities.
The Steinhardt Foundation, which helped found Talma, provided a grant for the program’s teachers to run weekly English classes for adults at KamaTech’s Bnei Brak center. There, small groups of young professionals can learn the foundations of the language and more advanced “Business English.”
Four English teachers – two men working with haredi men and two women working with women – taught at the center this past year, assisting some 200 students.
KamaTech CEO Moshe Friedman says the program is set to expand in September. He hopes to double the number of courses to meet the high demand coming from the haredi community.
“It’s not just learning English,” Friedman says. “It really gives people the tools and the skills to open a lot of opportunities and expand their professions. It’s a real miracle.”
Friedman notes that KamaTech’s students could quickly pick up the coding and engineering skills needed to enter the workforce, but says job interviews, emails and phone calls that require English present the greatest challenges.
About one in five ultra-Orthodox Jews do not speak any English (compared with only 5% of the secular population), the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) reported in 2017.
In Israel, the average gross salary per hour increases as the level of fluency in English increases. The CBS reports that among Jews, those with a very good command of English earn an average of NIS 72 per hour, compared with NIS 41 for those who cannot speak English at all.
“They really want to learn. They’re really open to it,” says Daniel Soloway, a Talma teacher who works with KamaTech. “Some of them have actually taken their kids out of the school they’re in and put them in a new school where they learn English because they recognize the importance of it.”

THE RATE of haredi employment has ramifications not only for the economic well-being of individual families, but for the Israeli economy as a whole.
The Finance Ministry recently reported that if the employment rate of haredi men remains stagnant at 50.5% (a decline in the past two years from 52%), it will cost the Israeli economy more than $100 billion a year over the next several decades. With Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population set to boom from 12% of the population today to 33% by 2065, Talma feels that integrating the community into the workforce is essential.
“I’m really passionate about this project from an academic perspective, as a teacher, but also from a social perspective,” Soloway says. “We have a lot of ultra-Orthodox people in Israel and we have to live together, and English is a great bridge to make things more unified.”
Talma is now working with Rabbi Ram Rabed to connect Talma instructors with haredi teachers who are learning to teach English to ultra-Orthodox boys.
Rabed, himself haredi, helped operate the IDF’s Shachar Kachol (Blue Horizon) program, which helps ultra-Orthodox soldiers integrate into the Israeli Air Force. He now serves as an intermediary and community diplomat for Talma.
“Rabbi Rabed is making sure that we are referred to teachers that are acceptable to the community so no one goes out against them, and we are choosing the Talma teachers and trainers they will be working with,” Futterman says. “Even if the rabbis in the sector don’t give their blessings, at least they’re not going out against us publicly.”
It’s a machol beitzim, Futterman says, a “dance on eggshells.” “We’re doing everything we can, as long as the eggshell doesn’t break.”
Talma’s operations remain largely focused on bringing American teachers to Israel, pairing them with Israeli co-teachers and placing them in classrooms in economically depressed areas from Mitzpe Ramon to the Druze villages of the North.

TALMA PUPILS practice counting to 100 with a dance. (Credit: SONIA EPSTEIN)

The program grew out of the desire of two family foundations – the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and The Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel – to address the growing need for better English education in Israel. The Seed the Dream Foundation, the Aronson and Levine foundations, and the Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore now fund Talma as well.
“Today, if you don’t have English as a base, you can’t really be marketable in... the job market,” Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel director Tova Dorfman says. “In general, English-language instruction is a problem in Israel, and it’s more of a problem in underserved communities or in the periphery, in the geographic and social periphery.”

AN OCTOBER 2013 study by the Youth Renewal Fund, a US-based NGO that supports educational empowerment in Israel’s periphery, found that only one in five English teachers are native speakers. Another quarter learned English independently.
A CBS study released in July 2019 showed that more than 90% of students in teachers’ colleges who go on to become English teachers failed to obtain a grade on the bagrut (matriculation exam) that would exempt them from English-language studies while they earn their bachelor’s degrees.
Weaknesses in Israel’s English education system extend beyond ill-prepared teachers. There are numerous job vacancies for English teachers that are simply not being filled.
“We know there is a lack of hundreds of certified English teachers in Israel,” Futterman says. “Hundreds.” He describes schools that don’t have an English teacher or that share English teachers, so that children receive less English instruction than they are entitled to by law. Talma seeks to ameliorate that situation.
Jacob Hochberger, who works for Teach for America in Nashville, Tennessee, during the school year spent his first summer with Talma outside Ashkelon, in Kiryat Malachi.
“We’re not making fluent speakers in three weeks,” Hochberger says. The program operates within this short time-frame with the Education Ministry’s “11th month of school” initiative, which keeps elementary schools open in July. That helps working parents while it allows Talma to hold its English-education programs in the schools at the same time.
“If we can inspire kids to be interested in the English language, if I can give them knowledge of letters and sounds and words, that’s a step,” Hochberger says. “And in this great challenge of education, taking steps is the best thing we can do.”
Talma also operates in steps. In addition to summer, it is now expanding its program year-round. That effort began last year with nine American teachers working in and around Mitzpe Ramon. This year, American teachers will also work full-time in Ein Gedi and the Ben Shemen Youth Village.
Another recent addition is a program that helps American teachers who are making aliyah. Beginning in August, some of these new Israeli citizens will start working in schools with Talma, or assisting with one of the other initiatives, such as the program for haredi students.
While the program for haredi students is still in the earliest stages, Futterman is eager to see it progress.
“We have one foot in the door,” he says. “We’re not going to let it close.”

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