English lessons continue throughout Israel despite geographical barriers

Following a successful pilot scheme in the summer of 2020, the project took off in September and has been growing at an amazing pace.

The program helps children fill their lonely pandemic days in a constructive manner (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
The program helps children fill their lonely pandemic days in a constructive manner
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Living with COVID-19 for a year has made it increasingly challenging to find positivity. Many have lost their jobs/businesses and lifestyles.
Pressures that were inconceivable just a year ago have surfaced and overwhelmed far too many. For those with young families, having children at home requiring parental supervision for their Zoom schooling has exacerbated tensions within the family – particularly when multiple children contend for a single computer. Our education system was inadequate (according to OECD studies) long before COVID; the pandemic has only served to emphasize this disturbing reality.
Yet there are positive happenings in this strange virus-infected reality of ours. Zoom has mitigated distance. Suddenly location is less significant. Zoom enables us to reach out to others no matter which city, country or even continent we live in. For ESRA, a volunteer-based organization geared to helping those in need – especially the young – Zoom has opened up the world.
One of the organization’s most successful projects is its English Tutoring Program (ETP). Volunteer national coordinator, Bernice Meyers, explains that ESRA works in close coordination with the Ministry of Education. Prior to the coronavirus, some 500 volunteers were able to “tutor” a student or students (depending on the school and English department head) by meeting regularly with the student at his/her school (in the volunteer’s vicinity). The prime objective is to help with spoken English.
Sadly, the pandemic put an end to face-to-face live visits. However, thanks to Zoom, ETP has expanded in more ways than one. Not only can you now be sitting in Haifa and tutoring a pupil in Eilat, you can also be tutoring Israel-based youngsters from your home in the United Kingdom, United States or even Australia.
NEWS OF Israeli children stuck at home in need of English help reached Sheli Wallach in Sydney. A former teacher at the Masada Jewish Co-educational School who describes herself as mostly retired, Wallach was keen to help an Israeli child. What began as a once-a-week tutoring program evolved into a six-day-a week teaching project. Wallach’s pupil, a 10-year-old living in Haifa whom we shall call Merav, is one of four children, including a two-year-old toddler. The other two siblings of school age are also being tutored by ESRA volunteers. There are many medical issues within the family resulting in the children being homebound and experiencing a hard time keeping up with the class Zoom lessons.
“I feel very grateful that I have this opportunity,” Wallach says. “Merav has been without a stable learning framework for almost two years; the English lessons – about half-an-hour a day – are the one constant happening in her “semi-normal” life. Her parents tell me she has to wake up at a certain time and do her homework. I know I am quite tough with her, but she has built up resilience and can now better cope with the challenges she faces.
“I receive as much out of our lessons as Merav does. Knowing that by devoting 30 minutes out of my day I am making a difference to a child’s life is such a gift! We almost never cancel – apart from when she has to babysit her little brother when her parents take her older brother for treatment to the hospital.”
The connection between Wallach and Merav was made by Dr. Helen Osimo, volunteer head of ESRA Haifa’s ETP, who previously lectured to potential teachers at Oranim Academic College’s English Department. Osimo explains that back in September the Ministry of Education reported that they had no solution for vulnerable children; as a consequence Osimo contacted a number of Haifa schools, resulting in ESRA’s “Home-bound Students Program” specifically for vulnerable children like Merav and her siblings.
Speaking to friends in London, Osimo found that COVID-19 had many feeling isolated and cut off from normal life. Here was an opportunity to introduce them to “Chat Away – Taking English out of the Classroom,” a new way to help youngsters improve their spoken English. The idea was to offer after-school conversation in English; the aim being to assist overburdened, overworked and stressed teachers. This ETP with a difference offers Israeli youngsters the opportunity to “chat away” in English to a native English-speaking volunteer.
Following a successful pilot scheme in the summer of 2020, the project took off in September and has been growing at an amazing pace.  
Word of “Chat Away” spread, enabling volunteers from other English-speaking countries wanting to fill their lonely pandemic days in a constructive manner to reach out to Israeli children. Chat Away was taking English out of the classroom and making it fun for all.
UK RESIDENT Barry Shooter first heard about Chat Away from a friend well-connected to Israel. Shooter told the Magazine, “Although pharmacy was my main career, I was able to organize my life so that I was, in addition, a school teacher and university lecturer. Although retired, I remain interested in interacting with young people; giving back and learning from them”
Today Shooter chats away with Yuval (as we shall call him), a 14-year-old who lives in Atlit with his parents and younger siblings. Currently school lessons are by remote learning only. Yuval recognizes his English conversation is poor compared to many of his peers who have the advantage of an English-speaking parent or having lived in an English-speaking world before living in Israel.
“It’s a vicious cycle because this makes Yuval reluctant to fully contribute to the English conversation school classes. Obviously it would be great if our chats brought him to a higher standard,” Shooter observes.
Shooter sees Yuval as a warm, friendly and polite young man who at the end of each session (scheduled for 20 minutes a week but sometimes lasts for 45 minutes) says how much he appreciates and enjoys their chatting together. In response to the question as to what Shooter derives from this experience he says, “I am learning from Yuval about living in a relatively non-pluralistic (Jewish) society and perhaps he is learning about living in the Diaspora.”
Views expressed by the schools utilizing this new approach to conversing in English?
• “Thank you so much – it is such a success.”
• “We are so lucky to have you all.”
Current plans are to extend this concept into the Arab sector of the Galilee.
Will this project continue post-pandemic? Osimo feels that speaking skills in English have been neglected; with classes of 35 pupils or more, it is difficult to have individual conversation practice. Chat Away is a solution to this problem and it’s without charge.
COVID-19 has prevented normal visits and interchanges between Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora. The opportunity afforded Diaspora Jews to connect with Israel by helping a child with his spoken English is best summed up in the words of Sheli Wallach:
“It’s a win-win situation. My pupil is learning despite not being able to go to school; the teacher’s job at school is made easier and when Merav goes back to school she may be at the top of the class in English. Won’t that be something? No, that is not the goal at all but she will certainly feel confident.”
If you or someone you know might enjoy the mitzva of chatting with a pupil to help improve his or her spoken English, contact ESRA.
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. The views expressed are hers alone.