Traversing the language barrier

Yerushalayim Torah Academy is providing an educational solution for teen olim who couldn’t adjust to the regular system.

Rabbi Meir Tauber (left) and Rabbi David Samson (photo credit: Mark Rebacz)
Rabbi Meir Tauber (left) and Rabbi David Samson
(photo credit: Mark Rebacz)
Although many parents hear about how quickly children pick up Hebrew and how easily they adjust to Israeli culture, for many, making aliya is not always smooth sailing. Many factors such as age, where one moves to, and knowledge of Hebrew can have a powerful effect on absorption.
What do parents do if their child can’t seem to pick up Hebrew? For some parents, like Robin Zemel who made aliya from the US four years ago, education was a major concern. “Just because we made aliya doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our kids’ education for it,” she says.
But her children didn’t all pick up Hebrew at the same rate. “Some picked up the language, and some struggled,” she says.
Her daughter, now in 10th grade, was having a difficult time. “She wasn’t sure all the time, and even if she missed just one word on a test, it could mean she missed the whole question.”
Enter the Yerushalayim Torah Academy (YTA), a religious English-language high school that strives to help ease the transition into Israeli life and provide support for those students who don’t do well adjusting to a foreign language and culture.
Established three years ago with 24 boys, this year the school opened a girls’ branch as well, with 20 students – including Zemel’s 10th-grade daughter.
The YTA schools are the brainchild of Rabbi David Samson, an “educational entrepreneur” who has founded many educational institutions in Israel for children at risk. Samson, who made aliya from the US more than 30 years ago, was teaching at a Jerusalem high school 10 years ago when he identified a problem: Lots of kids weren’t going to school.
“We started an evening school, first for boys and then for girls who either didn’t want to go to school or couldn’t. Some had run away from their homes or came from dysfunctional families and had to work during the day,” says Samson.
He would find the students by walking the streets, “and when we had a student who came, we would ask him about his friends, and his friends’ friends, and then they would come, too,” he explains.
Some of them, says Samson, were “English speakers who were good kids, but because they didn’t know Hebrew, they couldn’t fit in, and slowly they acquired abusive behavior.”
A study published earlier this year, which examined the issues teen olim face, revealed similar findings.
Conducted by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, the study examined Israeli youth aged 12 to 17 who immigrated to Israel and had been in the country for at least two years. It found that 19 percent of the youth from English-speaking countries feel they are not completely fluent in Hebrew and would like more help. Some 33% report struggling with three or more subjects, and 12% report failing them. The study also found that 40% of teenagers who immigrated between two and five years ago do not participate in class because they don’t know Hebrew well enough. It revealed that these children are at much higher risk of getting involved in crime, substance abuse and fights than their non-olim peers.
Though there are undoubtedly difficulties and obstacles to overcome at any age when one makes aliya, adolescence seems to be the most formidable. According to Avi Silverman, the adviser for education and communities at Nefesh B’Nefesh, the younger you are, the easier the transition is. “Learning the system from the start instead of changing systems is easier. But as the age increases, the friendships they leave behind are deeper, they’re closer with their relatives, and the learning material here becomes more difficult,” he says.
To address these issues, Rabbi Samson teamed up with Netiv Meir, a Bnei Akiva yeshiva high school that has existed for almost 60 years. According to Rabbi Meir Tauber, principal of Netiv Meir, the school “strives for excellence, in the hopes of better serving the Jewish people.”
To that end, Tauber says that when he was approached three years ago to integrate English-speaking olim, he was more than happy to accommodate.
“Slowly, the students are integrated into Hebrew classes, thereby allowing them to eventually fit in to Israeli society for a lasting period,” he says.
According to Tauber, though there is no economic incentive to housing the YTA program, educationally there is much to be gained for Netiv Meir students: “We are all new immigrants; it doesn’t matter when we came or which generation – someone in our family came here once. The encounter with the Jewish people from across the world is productive and important – it lets the students know that we are a nation, with many different kinds of people and different needs.”
The YTA-Netiv Meir mix has been very effective, Samson says. “The students have very good friends from Netiv Meir, and it’s a successful cohabitation.”
Samson also sees growth in his students’ acclimation to Israeli culture. “Whereas the ninth-grade dialogue is about baseball, in 12th grade it becomes talk of which Israeli yeshiva to attend and which elite army units to try out for,” he says.
JORDAN NEUSTATER, a 12th grader from New Jersey who made aliya four years ago, says he didn’t attend his local high school because he felt “it wasn’t great for olim or for people with difficulty speaking Hebrew.” He says YTA is a great match for him because he gets to hang out with Netiv Meir kids, as well as being able to “learn in my language.” He adds that the best part of school is his friends. “We all have the same background; we all ended up here, and we have to make the best of it.”
Yehuda Stone, who made aliya from Sharon, Massachusetts, three years ago, says that although he became almost fluent in Hebrew after his arrival, he still had difficulty with following the Jewish subjects. After attending a different high school for ninth grade and not liking it, YTA was recommended to him.
“I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it,” he says. “The school caters to my individual needs, and I need less assistance when I study in English because it’s my language.”
Currently, YTA has 60 students in the boys’ school, consisting of three grades – the 10th and 11th grades combined as one – and the new girls’ school, with 23 students. The curriculum is all in English, and YTA employs a translator to render the standardized Hebrew matriculation materials into English. What’s more, the schools have a special ulpan to teach terminology for the Hebrew matriculation exams, such as names and concepts in history and math.
Most of the students are immigrants who have arrived in the past two or three years, mainly from the US, with some from England, Scotland, Australia and South Africa. A few, however, have been here since a very young age; but because their parents moved to Englishspeaking enclaves, they never managed to fully pick up the language.
The school is so important to many families, says Samson, that some even delay their aliya until their child is accepted to the school. And for some, had the school not existed, the parents would not have been able to stay because their children would not have managed.
Samson adds that some of his students were using alcohol and drugs before coming to the school, and many more would be had it not been for YTA.
Rabbi Chanina Rabinowitz, a Bible, Talmud and English teacher at the school and a former high-school principal, says YTA is “very sensitive to various educational needs that students have.” He says many of the students “are at risk in one way or another, and their needs are not being met by standard schools.”
Rabinowitz says YTA “can keep the students as part of the community and give them the tools they need to succeed, thereby breaking the cycle of failure.”
Additionally, he says that many of the students are “motivated, wonderful kids but for either language or mentality have a problem making the switch from the Anglo society they come from to Israeli society. Some come from backgrounds where they were the best in their class, and then they come here and experience failure. YTA takes them off that path, enabling them to overcome the language issue.”
YTA also incorporates outdoor hikes and volunteer work in the community to help get the students more acquainted with Israeli society. The goal, says Samson, is to “integrate them into Israeli society and have them love the land and decide to make their homes here.”
The girls’ school, which began this year, is currently in a makeshift location. But Samson is optimistic that they will be able to join a girls’ high school in the coming months and create a similar set-up of integration as with Netiv Meir.
According to Samson, the need for a girls’ program is identical to that of the boys. The Brookdale study also found no genderrelated differences. But Samson adds that in his opinion, the need for a girls’ program may be even more acute because “girls are much more academically oriented than the boys. If they are not academically challenged, they are more distraught,” he says.
Dr. Lisa Fredman, principal of the girls’ school, says that there is another important element provided by the school. “The girls are happy here, and they feel very nurtured and emotionally safe. They can finally ask questions – something they felt intimidated about until now.”
Fredman, who immigrated from the US 22 years ago, says that “the girls who have experienced language-acquisition problems have fears; but once they believe in themselves, they can go out to the larger world and succeed.”
Robin Zemel, who decided that YTA would be the best place for her daughter after having tried ninth grade at a different school, says her daughter’s self-confidence is back, and her good grades have returned as well. The only qualm for Zemel is the lack of Israeli environment. “The ideal is to be in Israeli schools. Though I’m thrilled with the school, I would like my daughter to be getting more Hebrew.”
OTHER EDUCATORS have similar reservations and feel YTA is not necessarily the ideal environment for new olim. “The goal as an educator is to integrate olim into Israeli society and have them make it. Even for those students who don’t make it academically in typical Israeli high schools, the exposure to the culture and the social networking created in those first couple of years are positive,” says Bruria Lapin-Martin, the principal of GMAX, a one-year English-speaking high school program in Jerusalem.
“If they have conversational Hebrew, even though their academic Hebrew is weak, and if they have Israeli friends and they feel connected, then they can take care of their academic issues later on,” she says.
For that reason, Lapin-Martin was opposed to creating a fouryear high school “bubble.” Instead, she created a one-year program where youth who make aliya in 12th grade can graduate high school in English and get a GED or where olim who went to Israeli schools but didn’t do well on the matriculation exams can improve their chances of getting into university.
“Some students manage to completely integrate socially, yet cognitively they perform better in their mother tongue,” she says. “But the students’ happiness is the most important thing. If they can make it in the Israeli system, I turn them away because that’s preferable.”
She stresses that some of the country’s universities and many private colleges will accept students with just a GED, and the others require only a one-year mechina program, where students’ grades carry the same weight as the matriculation exams.
According to her, a school like YTA should only be a last resort in a case where a student is miserable or if the school is not working at all; but they should first try at least a year or two in the regular high schools.
“Parents should not push academic success as much as social success. If a student is happy at school, even if he’s not doing well academically, that’s a huge accomplishment. The academics can always be taken care of after,” she explains.
SILVERMAN ECHOES similar sentiments. “This isn’t the ideal.It’s not a great alternative to sending kids to regular schools – those should be where they go. But if they aren’t going to be successful, then a place like YTA is a good option.”
Silverman, who has been working at Nefesh B’Nefesh for seven years, says that the majority of adolescents who make aliya do fine in regular Israeli schools. But he usually tells families not to come with 11th or 12th graders.
“It’s not impossible,” he says, “but it’s hard to find a school that will take a 12th grader because it’s so hard for the school to accommodate them. That’s why there is YTA and GMAX.”
Another tip he recommends to many families is to have their child repeat ninth grade. “This way, the material is more familiar, and they just have to work on slowly mastering the language.”
According to the law, the government must provide six hours a week of aid to olim, but Silverman says it depends on the school, the number of kids and the number of teachers in order to make it work. Schools have to know how to adapt the school’s schedule. Students are often taken out in the middle of class, and when they come back they’re even more behind.
Additional government help is provided by some municipalities in the form of a special ulpan for teenage olim. Jerusalem is one of these cities in which the ulpan takes the place of high school for up to six months, during which time the students learn Hebrew and some general subjects. While there, they attend regular high schools once or twice a week to get acquainted with the school and the other kids.
When advising families, Silverman says he doesn’t bring up YTA unless specifically asked about it because “I try not to lead parents in that direction, since it’s not a first choice. The first choice is to integrate.” But for those children who try and still struggle, Silverman says YTA can be the answer.
YTA also lacks the test of time. With its first graduation coming in June, there is no indication yet as to whether the students have truly acclimated to Israeli culture and won’t have difficulty in the future. The hope is, however, that language will not be a barrier and that the students at YTA can continue to feel as confident and at home in Israel as they do now, once they leave the classroom.
As Mindy Kresch, a ninth grader at YTA from Detroit, describes her experience, “Other schools I tried out for didn’t think I would manage with the Hebrew. But I like that the school is in English; it’s much easier for me. And I hope I’ll be able to study completely in Hebrew in the future.”