It's 10 a.m. on a sunny late November day, and the fifth-graders at Hanasi Elementary School in Bat Yam are enjoying a lively English lesson. Volunteers Judith Wertheim, 18, and Josh Maine, 19, are helping teach the class how to describe each other. Four children stand at the front of the class, giggling as their classmates raise their hands to answer in English.
"He has blond hair," calls out one child confidently, jumping up from her seat to describe her classmate. "And he has a big nose!" she adds, as the rest of the class laughs.
Wertheim, from Cleveland, and Maine, from San Francisco, are both volunteers on Young Judaea's Year Course in Israel, a gap-year program for recent high school graduates. Young Judaea has been running Year Course, which combines academic and Jewish learning with a strong element of volunteering, for several decades. As part of the program, participants spend three months volunteering as English teachers in Bat Yam elementary schools.
Wertheim and Maine help Yafa Kotik, Hanasi's English teacher, develop English reading, writing and speaking skills in group lessons and on a one-to-one basis. Kotik says the volunteers have helped make English a part of the kids' everyday lives, via language games and songs.
Since Hanasi's school bell rings to the tune of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" several times a day, for instance, "we taught the kids the words to the song," says Maine. "They love singing it."
A few blocks away from Hanasi, in the same neighborhood, three more Young Judaeans - 18-year-olds Ezra Schick, Chana Zeller and Jason Edelman - are volunteer English teachers at Har-El, a religious elementary school. Like Maine and Wertheim, Schick, Zeller and Edelman work with teachers Drora and Tehila in regular English classes and provide one-on-one help outside the mainstream class.
Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, is an economically disadvantaged suburb with a large population of recent immigrants, many from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Many of the children attending Har El and Hanasi are from new immigrant families.
Judy Cohen, Young Judaea's Bat Yam coordinator, explains that the city was specifically chosen for Year Course's volunteer program to allow the American youngsters to experience a different side of Israeli life. The volunteers become very much a part of the local community and, most importantly, have a chance to make a difference at the schools in which they work.
Local schools have been very positive about working with Year Course volunteers, says Cohen. Hanasi and Har El teachers are eager to praise the volunteers, and talk about the impact they have had on the children's English abilities.
The teachers unanimously agree that this impact goes deeper than improved English. While not all of the children attending these schools are from the poorest families, many face difficult socioeconomic circumstances. The American volunteers provide an amazing experience for these kids, says Kotik.
"It creates a great atmosphere in the English classes," she explains. "It's fun, it's nice and it makes the children feel really proud and special, because they have the chance to speak English with young people from the USA."
Young Judaea volunteers live in apartment buildings in Bat Yam, right in the middle of the communities they help. They relate that they often see the children out shopping or walking with their families in the local neighborhood.
"One day, one of the kids ran up to me in the street and said over and over in English, 'My name is Yossi! My name is Yossi!' He was really excited," smiles Wertheim.
Huge efforts have been made in recent years to improve the city. Among these is Mayor Shlomo Lahiani's educational improvement program, at the heart of which is the idea that "kol talmid yachol" - every student can do it. Bat Yam's educational advances landed the city the National Education Prize in 2007.
The Young Judaea program fits well with Bat Yam's drive to boost education, says Cohen. Feedback about the volunteer program has been glowing. Bat Yam teachers and City Hall have reported that children are doing better in English, with greatly improved test scores.
"Having native speakers gives a sense of authenticity to learning English," says Kotik. "The children have the opportunity to hear English spoken with a correct accent."
The volunteers have also given a boost to children who have struggled to learn English, by enabling those in need of extra attention to receive it.
"Having volunteers help in class allows me to devote more time to the children who need extra help with English," says Kotik.
A native Hebrew speaker, Kotik adds that Maine and Wertheim have helped her improve her own English pronunciation.
Har-El's teachers say that beyond helping with the children's English abilities, the three American youngsters have set a positive example.
"They demonstrate Jewish values of responsibility, caring for others and loving them," Drora says. "They taught the children about volunteering, that you can help people without being paid for it."
There is considerable evidence to show that there are tremendous benefits to learning a second language from an early age. A recent study at Cornell University showed that children who learn a second language are better at maintaining attention despite external stimuli, compared with children who know only one language.
Knowledge of other languages and cultures is also important in an increasingly global society. Learning English at a high level, says Kotik, particularly with the help of the American volunteers, has exposed the children to a different culture, expanded their horizons and given them a feeling of achievement.
"It opens a whole new world for them," she says.
As English is an "international language," notes Kotik, it will help the children "when they study, travel abroad or interact with other cultures in Israel."
The program has opened up a new world for the Young Judaean volunteers, as well. Wertheim says that just as she has helped to make a difference for the kids, the volunteering experience has made a difference in her life.
"I always found school work easy," she admits. "So it was good to realize that for some kids, it's a lot harder."
Edelman says living in the Bat Yam community has helped him understand a lot more about life in Israel.
"It's interesting to see Bat Yam. There are lots of Jewish immigrants here from Ethiopia and Russia," he explains. "It makes you feel close to the people."
Schick and Zeller agree.
"It's so different from home," Schick says with a smile. "At first it was kind of a shock, but now I know people everywhere. They even know me in the supermarket."
Some of the volunteers, like Schick, want to go on to work as educators in mainstream education or with children with special needs. Zeller, who has interests in forensic psychology and theater, is considering making aliya in the future. Whatever direction the young volunteers' futures take, it is certain that their experiences in Bat Yam have had a positive and lasting impact on them, and on the children they have taught.
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