Educating Jaffa

A committed band of volunteers working in Jaffa is giving a shot in the arm to children’s English literacy in the city.

Jaffa Institutes Closing the Gaps English Tutorial Program 5 (photo credit: Courtesy: Jaffa Institutes Closing the Gaps Englis)
Jaffa Institutes Closing the Gaps English Tutorial Program 5
(photo credit: Courtesy: Jaffa Institutes Closing the Gaps Englis)
When Marc Schoen was asked to take over an English-language teaching program for disadvantaged children in Jaffa 26 years ago, the location was not so important to him.
Although back then it was an excuse for the New Yorkborn new immigrant to have a change of pace from Ashkelon and help children in need, he has not looked back since.
Schoen has been in charge of the Jaffa Institute’s Closing the Gaps English tutoring program since 1987 and has been teaching English to schoolchildren in Jaffa with the help of a large team of volunteers. Now, with years of experience behind him, he is glad he had the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of the residents.
In the program that he coordinates, volunteers go into schools in Jaffa to help the pupils learn English.
The sessions last about an hour and a half, with Schoen giving the children an introduction to the various topics. The children are then split into groups of two or three and placed with a volunteer who helps them go over the lessons in the varied and well-constructed curriculum.
Although he is the coordinator, Schoen stresses that he could not do it without the team of people that works with him. He has the full backing of the Jaffa Institute’s chairman, Dr. David J. Portowicz, who says that Schoen and his team do excellent work for the community.
Schoen is in charge of program development, volunteer recruitment and training, as well as being responsible for recruiting the schools. “I recruit the schools just as much as I recruit the volunteers,” he says.
The program does not have any official relationship with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, so he has to go to the schools and find the people himself. “My brief is Jaffa, and I am designated to go to the schools there.”
His brief is to work with all the communities in Jaffa, but since he is limited by time and the number of volunteers, he has narrowed his scope to the public schools.
He has found that the Arab schools reach out for his help much more than the predominantly Hebrewspeaking schools.
“In recent years it has been harder to persuade the Hebrew-language schools to take my program on board,” Schoen explains. He speculates that there is “a gap in interest based on the realities in which we live.”
He also points out that the municipality tries to serve the Arab community as well as the Jewish community.
But he says, “It is quite obvious that the Arab schools are keener to seek help when they can. The Hebrew-language schools tell me they can’t take me on board because they have so many offers. They don’t understand how I can help them. The children are overwhelmed by so many programs, and this tends to box me out,” he says.
Schoen is glad the Hebrew-language schools are inundated with offers of help from various other programs but stresses the importance of helping the Arab schools as well. “One gets the sense that the Arab community is more willing when someone comes along and says he is going to help the children in the community for free, and obviously on condition that we are professional. They are more than happy to figure it out and make it work.”
With Arab schools receiving fewer volunteer groups from outside the official framework, it appears that they are much more flexible when it comes to offers of help.
“I will offer what I have to offer, and the Arab schools will find the kids. If I say I can’t help the kids who don’t speak any English, then they say they will find kids who have at least the basics.”
Due to the constraints of the program it is only feasible to work with children who have some basic knowledge of English.
ALTHOUGH SCHOEN takes it upon himself to find the schools that are most in need of his assistance, he is very modest about the impact it has on the community as a whole. “I see the impact within the groups that I work with, but I will join the other tens of thousands of community workers and say it is rare that one person will see the change in a whole community simply by working there.”
He knows he is making a difference but says he tries not to look at the picture on a larger scale because his specific role is much too small.
“What I can do is monitor what goes on with what I personally do, and I do see the impact we are making.
Again, we are just like all the other thousands of people who do work in such communities who hope that all these little changes will lead to a bigger impact. I am just trying to make a small impact on as many children as I can in the hope that somewhere down the road there will be some changes in some individual lives.”
He knows he could not make even the slightest impact without the help of his dedicated team of volunteers.
The program was originally set up for overseas students at Tel Aviv University to do something more worthwhile than hitting the local bars. But then as the years went on, Schoen found that the Englishspeaking community was wide enough and generous enough not to rely on the students alone. He now recruits people from the general community by reaching out on various websites and community pages.
This opening up of the program has enabled a host of people from the English-speaking community to be exposed to areas and communities they would not have otherwise encountered.
The volunteers are a healthy mix of old and young, religious and secular, Jewish and non-Jewish, students and professionals, tourists and citizens.
“I am overwhelmed that so many of the volunteers get so much out of it. Sometimes I don’t understand why they thank me,” he says. “They have spent the last year doing this difficult job and not getting paid for it, so why are they thanking me?” Schoen explains that volunteering in such communities gives the volunteers exposure to real life. “It’s one-on-one. This is face to face, and you can see the results. There are those who come specifically to Jaffa because they want to work in such communities, and the program does what it says it will do.”
He is proud of the way he has set things up and believes that the volunteers feel comfortable and not just thrown into something they know nothing about. He stresses that he endeavors to make people feel like they are not alone. “I give a lot of guidance, and this helps us all achieve the objectives we want.”
One volunteer, Jonathan Danilowitz, says that although there are certain challenges, he gets a lot out of the volunteering experience.
“Sometimes it’s hard to relate to the children, as I don’t speak any Arabic and there are a lot of cultural and political differences.”
Danilowitz, who has been in Israel for 40 years and volunteers twice a week, saw the posting for volunteers on an English website and was instantly attracted to the idea. He didn’t know that it would involve volunteering in Arab schools in Jaffa; but when found out, he was excited at the prospect.
“There are two reasons I do it,” he says. “I believe that every child deserves the best possible education, and I want to expose Arab children to Jewish people. One day they will remember that there are good Jews out there.”
Although he doesn’t think the children are greatly appreciative, he says he gets a lot of personal satisfaction from teaching them English.

Schoen, along with volunteers such as Danilowitz, is well aware that many of the children are not always so keen to participate in the program. He says that often the girls sit with a female volunteer from North America, and it’s love at first sight. There are hugs and kisses, along with thank-you notes at the end, but he admits that sometimes he does fail.
“Children have their own agenda,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I think they learn a lot. Whether they retain it more than six months later is another story.”
He says the Jaffa Institute is now moving its focus to the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, and that if 27 years ago they had asked him to work there, he would have gone happily.
”The institute works in the areas where the children are in need of an enrichment program. When I started, the families of the institute found it important to be in Jaffa because of the nature of the community,” he explains.
Although he is willing to offer help wherever it is needed most, he says, “The issues in Jaffa attracted me.”
For anyone interested in becoming a volunteer, contact Marc Schoen at 054-755-2014 or visit