English Overseas: US Jewish volunteers teach Israelis English over Zoom

An idea born during the pandemic is continuing to spawn healthy educational and personal gain for all.

 STATESIDE VOLUNTEERS and Jerusalemite students get together for a Zoom chat. (photo credit: Courtesy English Overseas)
STATESIDE VOLUNTEERS and Jerusalemite students get together for a Zoom chat.
(photo credit: Courtesy English Overseas)

If you know anyone who is struggling to nail down the basics of English or get their spoken language proficiency up to speed – and they just happen to be attending one of the senior classes at a Jerusalem high school – you would do well to point them in the direction of the English Overseas program.

No, this does not require young candidates to scrape together the wherewithal to get themselves over to the States for a crash course. The ongoing beneficiaries of the bilateral initiative – thought up by the Jerusalem Municipality and run in tandem with Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan in the Big Apple – have been honing their English speaking skills for some time now, and all from the comfort of their own homes.

A couple of years ago, while most of us were hunkering down within our own increasingly suffocating walls, Hagit Cohen came up with a winning notion. With the benefit of hindsight, and the requisite evolving technology, the idea seems pretty obvious – but not back then.

Cohen, an Audit Department municipality staff member who is not employed in a related educational field, thought there could be some practical rewards on offer for all concerned by pairing young Jerusalemites, who could benefit from a helping hand with their English, together with older American adults, who not only have time to spare – mind you, sadly, during the lockdowns we all had that in abundance – but also have the perfect language skills the teenagers could benefit from. And so English Overseas came to be.

“In the first year, we had 100 students. Last year we had 150, and we are expecting 400 to 500 students in the third year.”

Adiel Ish Shalom
 (R TO L) Program initiator Hagit Cohen, Jerusalem Municipality program coordinator Adiel Ish Shalom and Wechsler Center for Modern Aging at JCC Manhattan director Susan Lechter proudly sport their JCC T shirts.  (credit: Anaelle Elhadad Cohen) (R TO L) Program initiator Hagit Cohen, Jerusalem Municipality program coordinator Adiel Ish Shalom and Wechsler Center for Modern Aging at JCC Manhattan director Susan Lechter proudly sport their JCC T shirts. (credit: Anaelle Elhadad Cohen)

UNDER THE stewardship of Adiel Ish Shalom, from the municipality’s Education Administration, and Rabbi Brian Fink, director and community organizer with Engage Jewish Service Corps of The Wechsler Center for Modern Aging, which operates under the aegis of the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, Cohen’s idea gathered momentum and eventually became a virtually-enabled reality across the Atlantic.

Ish Shalom is delighted with the way things have gone thus far, and with good reason. “In the first year, we had 100 students. Last year we had 150, and we are expecting 400 to 500 students in the third year,” he says. That’s impressive incremental growth by anyone’s standards.

How do US volunteers teach Israeli high schoolers English over Zoom?

The format couldn’t be simpler. A student from here, generally in 11th or 12th grade, is paired with an older adult volunteer in New York, and the two set a date and time for their weekly Zoom sessions. That sounds pretty uncomplicated, but naturally there was the odd teething problem. “The program started two years ago, with the students from 10th, 11th and 12th grades, but we saw that most of the disciplinary problems were with 10th-grade students,” Ish Shalom explains.

The organizers may have been enthused, and ready to launch full speed ahead, but they were also testing the lay of the land as they went. “As the program was at the pilot stage, in the first year we started out with small, six-monthly groups. We wanted to build it up gradually.”

Certainly, as far as Fink and his colleagues in Manhattan were concerned, there was a win-win situation in the offing. “From the JCC’s standpoint that [Zoom-based platform] was definitely an attraction,” he says. “We were looking for different ways to create virtual programming during the pandemic.”

The virtual Torah duly came forth from Zion. “It was in late spring-early summer 2020 that someone from the Jerusalem municipality reached out to us. They were connected to our film program at the JCC, and we do a lot of Israeli film festivals and that sort of thing,” Fink says.

The wheels began to turn. “It was really interesting for us, and it was intriguing for us, and we thought that a lot of our volunteers could be interested in this.”

Who are the US volunteers teaching Israelis English over Zoom?

And so it came to be in the first year, with close to 100 senior citizens associated with the JCC in Manhattan happily joining in the international teaching fray.

MIMI NEMEROFF was certainly eager to jump on board the English Overseas bandwagon. As most, if not all the volunteers in New York are past retirement age – although not all have stopped working – the sessions have the added advantage of imbuing their downtime with a new dimension and new interest. 

“We have Zoom meetings – and when I speak to her, my whole day feels better,” Nemeroff says, referring to 17-year-old Jerusalemite and Ulpanat Talya student Reut Bidaglin. 

When I spoke to the teenager, she voiced similar sentiments. Although designed to help Israeli youngsters build their confidence in expressing themselves verbally in a foreign language, English Overseas clearly has a social side to it, too.

Nemeroff is a bit of an old hand at the job. “Reut is actually my second student,” she notes. “I had one the year before who graduated from high school.”

The New Yorker had no previous teaching experience so, to put it bluntly, she did not know exactly what she was getting into. That was where Fink et al came in. 

“We got a tutorial from the JCC before we started,” she explains. “Rabbi Fink put together a Zoom session set up with the head of the people in Jerusalem where the students were going to come from.” Enter Ish Shalom. “We were able to get a [Zoom] tutorial from Jerusalem through that,” Nemeroff adds.

Presumably, there were some early hurdles to be jumped, or sidestepped. Teenagers can be wary of encounters with strangers, and it can take a while before they feel they are building trust with their opposite number. It seems there were no such issues with the Nemeroff-Bidaglin pairing. “Reut and I just hit it off right from the beginning,” says the volunteer.

As far as Bidaglin is concerned, she not only has someone to help her develop her English speaking skills, but now she also has a friend over in New York. “We talk about everything,” the teenager bubbles. She is really my friend. I’ve never had a friend Mimi’s age. I don’t normally open up to older people, but it is different with Mimi. There is something very powerful about our relationship.”

WHILE HIGH school teachers do their bit in helping their young charges along, at the end of the day schools are largely cloistered academic bubbles and often do not manage to convey the street-level vibe of everyday spoken language. That may leave students with a decent handle on grammar and syntax – and hopefully good grades – but most of them are probably not going to be able to strike up a conversation with, say, a visiting American tourist and keep it ticking over.

Bidaglin says she was painfully aware of that deficiency in her English education but that, after her weekly sessions with Nemeroff began, things took a decided upturn. “I knew a decent amount of English but I wasn’t fluent at all. When I started talking with Mimi, I got that confidence I lacked. I began using the words I already knew, in a practical way, in actual conversation.”

That widening linguistic comfort zone soon impacted on Bidaglin’s academic performance. “My grades really shot up after I started my sessions with Mimi,” she enthuses. “It helped with my English in class, and my writing in tests began to flow much more smoothly.”

The program activities were held in abeyance over the summer vacation, as students got on with exams and other stuff, and Bidaglin says she can’t wait to reconnect with Nemeroff. “I always look forward to our weekly chats. We exchanged emails during the summer, and Mimi corrected my written mistakes – but I really miss our sessions.”

Adi Bruchim is one of the few students to have had the opportunity to get a hug from her American volunteer, when Amy Lieberman recently visited Israel. “Adi is a wonderful human being and a ‘poster child’ for the program.” Lieberman says. “She is a phenomenal human being and student, and her English is perfect.”

No doubt that is largely down to Lieberman’s help and the relationship that formed between there over the past year. But she is more than ready to dish out the kudos to the teenager. “Adi is totally committed and responsible, and I’m so grateful to know her and be part of the program. See you January-February next year in Israel!”

JONATHAN MERRILL joined in as a volunteer a year ago and began working with Nitai Vixen, who has since graduated from high school and now attends a yeshiva before he joins the army. Merrill says he followed suit after his wife volunteered for the program, and that he enjoyed his two years with Vixen immensely. 

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for me to connect to a young Israeli,” he says, adding that it has been something of a broad two-way street. “I have learned things from Nitai, and I taught him things about the United States, including about American Jewry, and broadened his horizons a bit about that.”

Merrill says he was provided with evidence on the ground that his student gained during their virtual time together. “Last week, Nitai was in Safed and he met some tourists. They spoke in English and one of the tourists asked Nitai ‘Are you from New York?’ He mistook him for a native English speaker! I was so pleased, and so was Nitai.”

Yehonatan Menasheh from the Pelech Boys School, who is moving up to 12th grade, says he enjoyed his six months with New Yorker volunteer Roni Benscher and made good progress with her. Unfortunately, she had to take a break from the Zoom sessions, and he became Merrill’s second student in April.

Menasheh says his time on the program has helped him make serious strides and progress further than would have been possible if he had made do with just his high school classes. “My English is so much better. I don’t think people in the formal education system know so much English; they have more technical knowledge. I can now communicate so much better in English.”

Another new 12th-grader, Yaara Hammel, who goes to Hartman High School, says she has also developed a close friendship with her volunteer, Susan Rome. Florida resident Rome is one of the few non-New Yorkers on the program. “I have so much more confidence with speaking in English now,” says Hammel. “When I watch movies now, I listen to the English instead of reading the Hebrew subtitles.”

Hammel also says she hopes to meet Rome in the coming year, with Fink and his JCC colleagues working on a volunteer delegation trip over here. “I can’t wait to meet Susan. She’s a friend, like a second grandmother.” And a fluent English-speaking one to boot.

With the municipality looking to continue expanding the English Overseas program, it looks like our youngsters’ command of English will be on the rise, and incoming tourists will get an eloquent helping hand – in virtually native English. ❖