Jewish-American deaf teacher in Israel breaks through mask barrier

Masa Teaching Fellow Giselle Nissenbaum is deaf and relied on lip reading in her classes. But when COVID-19 forced people to wear masks, she started teaching sign language.

 Masa Teaching Fellow Giselle Nissenbaum. (photo credit: Masa)
Masa Teaching Fellow Giselle Nissenbaum.
(photo credit: Masa)

Giselle Nissenbaum, 23, originally from Los Angeles, was only 10 when she tragically and suddenly lost her hearing. After studying for a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she came to Israel and became a teacher as part of the Masa Teachers program with Israel Experience.

Apart from the language challenges, cultural differences and character of the Israeli students, I had another challenge – I am completely deaf,” she told The Jerusalem Post.

Another challenge came in the form of the COVIN pandemic and its mask requirement. The subsequent influx of face masks hindered her ability to communicate.

“At the beginning of the school year, we all still had to wear face masks, which made it impossible to read anyone’s lips,” she said. “I wasn’t able to understand what my students were saying. But I had a drive to be here and be with the kids. I had a drive to make a difference.”

Although disheartened at first, Nissenbaum would not give up. Her drive to see her dream through had her come upon a simple, albeit effective, solution: teaching her students sign language.

Masa Teaching Fellow Giselle Nissenbaum is seen teaching her Israeli students sign language. (Credit: MASA)

“At the beginning of the school year, we all still had to wear face masks, which made it impossible to read anyone's lips. I wasn't able to understand what my students were saying. But I had a drive to be here and be with the kids. I had a drive to make a difference."

Giselle Nissenbaum

In addition to teaching, Nissenbaum volunteers twice a week at the Community Center for the Deaf in Rishon Lezion.

“Twice a week, I teach English as a second language to deaf seniors,” she said. “They teach me sign language in Hebrew and I teach them sign language in American English. Some are older than my grandparents, but I really love the days I am there with them. I take off my cochlear transmitter and I feel like I’m 100% myself.”

This week, she will complete the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows Program, founded by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, along with about 150 other participants from English-speaking countries. The program and its participants’ purpose is to support English language skills and build a bridge between Israel’s next generation and global Jewry in Israel’s periphery.

Nissenbaum recalled that she was initially apprehensive about the way she would be received by the students. “When I started teaching at school, the kids thought I was lying. I speak normally, so they did not believe I was deaf – I had to take out my transmitter and show them,” she said. “Now they are used to it and they call my lip-reading ‘my superpower.’ I like the fact that they are not afraid to ask questions like most adults.

Making dreams come true

“Many times, children with disabilities are not considered cool, smart or achievers,” Nissenbaum added. “Children can be mean and shun them. But what I love is that they see for themselves how ‘cool’ I am, that I have friends and I am the fun teacher who came from the US. I have the opportunity to change the stigma."

"Yes, I can teach them English, but most importantly, I have the privilege to teach them empathy. I already see it. I see that they are more patient with the ‘other’ children in their class.”

Masa CEO Ofer Gutman said, “Every year, young, well-educated college graduates from English-speaking countries choose to pursue a meaningful chapter in their lives in Israel and come here as Masa Israel Teaching Fellows to experience Israeli society as locals."

"Masa participants significantly contribute to reinforcing and making English studies more accessible in the country’s social and geographical periphery, through a great sense of mission.”

“Over the past decade, we have brought hundreds of young Diaspora Jews to strengthen the English language studies in the Israeli education system," said Amos Hermon, CEO of 'Israel Experience', the Jewish Agency’s education subsidiary, which brought Nissenbaum and her friends to Israel and runs the program under the Masa Israel framework. "These young adults teach Israeli pupils English using unique and varied methods, for example using sign language that they invent during the course of their studies, which make learning the language more attractive.”