The exchange game

Scenes from the lives of Olim.

Israeli schnitzel with pasta (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/AVIAD BUBLIL)
Israeli schnitzel with pasta
TWO WOMEN are sitting at a table in a coffee shop in Ra’anana. The one made aliya from South Africa a year ago, the other arrived from Iran in the 1950s. They are sharing stories about their new start – the younger woman is describing how her two children are adapting to their new life in the beautiful city, with tall trees, parks and colorful flowers planted along the pavements. The second woman relates how she and her family stayed in tents in Beersheba when she first arrived decades ago – and how today her many grandchildren are thriving in this country.
So how did these two very different women, at very different stages in their lives, find themselves confiding in each other about the different paths in their lives? It’s all thanks to an exchange program in Israel, one that I have found to be brilliant and enlightening.
In short, new olim (immigrants) in Israel are offered help with homework in the afternoons. The volunteers who translate and guide children after class are either retired teachers or Hebrew-speaking men and women, who want to contribute by making the landing for young children that much easier. I signed up as soon as I heard about it, so that homework in a new language wouldn’t be too daunting for my children. In return, I was told I could pay each month in shekels, or offer any skill, lesson or coaching option.
The first option was to offer life coaching sessions, but I was quick to add, that I would prefer to coach clients in English.  (Connecting to another person when your language skills are at different levels can be very challenging!) The second option was to offer English-speaking lessons. A few days later, I received a call from a softly- spoken woman, who told me in Hebrew that she wanted help her with her conversational English.
When the pupil becomes the teacher…
On paper, I’m teaching a Hebrew-speaking woman conversational English. Truth is, this attractive 67-year old grandmother from Iran is teaching me so much more than she realizes. Her personal stories are obviously not mine to share, but suffice it to say that the start of a new life for immigrants today is so much easier than it was decades ago. The risks people take today cannot be compared to the uncertainty she and her family faced after leaving Iran. How many people at her stage in life want to focus on learning a new language? Her entire family speaks Hebrew here – she is simply doing this for her own personal growth. She offers so much perspective and insight into life here. Her positivity is inspiring. I look forward to every “lesson.”
There are many similar “exchange programs” here, which see people giving back to the community. Another brilliant concept is the Telfed Pras student program. Immigrant families apply to Telfed – the South African Zionist Federation in Israel – so a student can be assigned to spend three hours a week with your children. They speak Hebrew to them, take walks together or simply play games. This student becomes an unofficial mentor to the younger children. We’ve been assigned a wonderful young woman who grew up in San Francisco. This week, I left our flat while she and my children were baking cookies, amid much laughter. Her volunteer work with us is in exchange for a scholarship she’s received from Telfed. It’s a win for everybody.
It’s such a simple concept. The recipient benefits, the volunteer benefits, and they go to bed at night knowing they have helped someone else in some small way make their adjustment in Israel that much easier.