Everybody WINs!

From a former NASA engineer to a university professor, volunteers from the US have come to Israel to tutor high-school students in English.

tutor 88 224 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
tutor 88 224
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Something peculiar is going on in a classroom at the end of the corridor. There is no teacher standing at the blackboard; no "lesson," as most of us understand the term, is being presented. The students - approximately 30 tenth-grade boys and girls - are sitting in groups of five or six, huddled around tables, with rapt expressions on their faces, each kid grinning from ear to ear. At each table is one person who is definitely not a kid, but rather a man or woman who appears to be around 70 years old. A low, quiet buzz of conversation in English resonates at each of the five tables. The students are Israeli, with obviously varying degrees of proficiency in the language. Their elderly guests are American, with accents forged from lifetimes spent in places like Brooklyn, Chicago, and Providence, Rhode Island. The kids all look happy; the Americans appear almost ecstatic, as though they are having the time of their lives. Virtually everyone on Earth is aware that, as a world-class tourist destination, Israel has many well known attractions. First and foremost, there are the numerous religious sites, sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Then there are the myriad number of archeological and historical sites scattered throughout the country - some, like Masada, famous and visited by crowds of tourists; others, like Megiddo, not so well known and off the beaten track. There are also no end of beautiful places - like the upper Galilee, the Dead Sea, nature parks and beaches - to which tourists are drawn in their tens of thousands every year. For one small but select group of visitors from the United States, however, Israel's major attraction - to which some of them return year after year - is a classroom at Tchernichovsky High School in Netanya. These unusual touristsare participating in an equally unusual program known as Winter in Netanya, or WIN, originated 25 years ago by Netanya resident Gideon Shipone and run in conjunction with B'nai B'rith in the United States. Administered for the past several years by the venerable Jewish women's association Hadassah, the WIN Program attracts mostly older people from the US, and combines travel, Hebrew lessons and social events with a full regimen of volunteer service, mostly in Netanya public schools. And while the idea of using native English speakers to tutor Israeli school students is not new - ESRA, the English Speaking Residents Association has been doing precisely this for almost 30 years - this program is unique in that its participants pay substantial amounts of money to fly to Israel and live here for two months in order to help Israeli kids with their English. Some WIN volunteers even choose to work in hospitals and soup kitchens. Those who volunteer at the Tchernichovsky School spend several periods in both 11th and 12th-grade English classes, exposing the students to "real" conversational English, building their confidence in speaking, and preparing them for the oral part of their English matriculation exams. Tenth-grade classes are visited as well. What kind of people does such a program attract? Roslyn Garber, 68, taught mathematics for 24 years in an inner-city school in Detroit before retiring and moving to Florida. "I couldn't figure out Florida," she recalls. "Florida was cooking, cleaning and driving. When my friend saw an advertisement for this program in the Hadassah Magazine, we decided to try it. Last year we tried it for a month, and this year for two months. It's something to do, we feel useful and it gives us a great feeling of satisfaction." Roslyn Wellner, 77, formerly an employment counselor from Manchester, New Jersey, was also bored with retirement in Florida. Having spent years helping young people write resumes, prepare for interviews and find good jobs, she saw WIN as another chance to use her people skills. "I feel that I'm getting much more than I'm giving," she says. Wellner was fortunate enough to receive an added, unexpected bonus reward for her tutoring in the form of a young distant cousin attending the school as a student, whom Wellner met for the first time in January while tutoring. "The girl is absolutely gorgeous, and she made my day by telling me that I look exactly like her mother," Wellner says, laughing. Andy Blazar, 74, a physician from Providence, Rhode Island, finds that he is learning a great deal from the students. "And, they seem to think that we're helping them, and I'm very gratified they feel that way." His wife, Beverly, 74, a retired professor of immunology at Wellesley College, made her first visit to Israel in 1951 and has been back many times since. "I have a great love for this country and I'm glad to be able to help," she says. Beverly praises the WIN program for giving the students an opportunity to use a language they learn but rarely if ever speak. "I sat with a group of students last week. The girl to my left said, 'I'm shy. I will not talk.' By the end of the hour, she was the most talkative one in the group. This sort of thing is just wonderful" This is the Blazars' third straight year of tutoring at Tchernichovsky. Walter Harris, 78, served as the educational director of a residential treatment center in New Marlboro, Massachusetts following his retirement as principal of a high school in Brooklyn, New York. He and his wife, Barbara, 74, are now Israeli citizens, living part of the year in Netanya, and part in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. "We don't like the summers here in Israel, Walter says. They do, however, like tutoring at Tchernichovsky with the annual winter groups from Hadassah, which, Walter says, "gives us a great feeling of accomplishment and makes us feel young again." Barbara adds, "We tried California, Arizona and Florida and decided it wasn't for us. We came to Israel 10 years ago with the WIN program, fell in love with Netanya and decided to live here part of the year. Now, we come to Israel every year when the WIN program starts. We're very attached to the Tchernichovsky School." Mimi Zebrak, at 65 the self-described "baby" of the program, is in her rookie year with WIN. She tutors both at Tchernichovsky and at a Netanya elementary school where, she says, "the children are beyond charming. I think I've learned more Hebrew from them than I have taught English to them." Zebrak credits the teaching staffs at both Tchernichovsky and the elementary school with being organized, dedicated, and very glad to have the assistance of WIN volunteers. Alan Friedlander, 71, is a retired NASA aerospace engineer, whose entire career was involved with the space program and, he says in his distinct Chicago accent, "on future exploration of the solar system." He adds, "We were always doing advanced mission studies. So almost all of the spacecraft that went to planets, asteroids, moons and so forth, at some point or another I worked on it when it was a germ of an idea." Now in his third year at Tchernichovsky, he says, "I love this program. That's why I always come back." Carol Friedlander, 68 and former medical technician, recalls: "The first day we came here this year, the students were standing outside with flowers. That's how glad they were to see us. It's a lot better than sitting in Florida, not doing much of anything." She and her husband Alan also arranged a 10-day "Young Ambassadors Program" with English instruction coordinator Ricky Neria, in which 20 students from the Tchernichovsky School were able to travel to Chicago a year ago, visit American school classrooms to talk about Israel, and stay with American host families. All of the volunteers agree that the high school students at Tchernichovsky differ from their counterparts in the United States by being more serious and more self-directed. Roslyn Garber, former high school teacher in Detroit, says, "The kids here are very serious. They know about their politics, they're aware of their likes and dislikes, they're very committed about going into the army. I have yet to meet one child that wasn't. It's just a different feeling when you talk to them and when you talk to children in the United States." Barbara Harris adds, "Because of the political situation, and the army ahead of them, the kids here just grow up a lot quicker. They have just a very short time to be teenagers." Would the volunteers recommend this experience to others? "Yes!" they reply, almost in chorus. All agree that they would recommend the tutoring program to anyone willing to give of themselves, and to anyone devoted to Israel. The volunteers aren't the only ones excited about their tutoring duties at Tchernichovsky. Veteran teacher Anne Ben Shalom is particularly enthusiastic about the program and says, "It gives the kids an opportunity to speak English without being nervous. They get to talk and interact naturally with a real American, and they say things that I've never heard them say before. In a normal classroom situation, I don't get a chance to speak to them much one-on-one, so it's amazing what I'm finding out during the tutoring - about their backgrounds, their families, what they think." In classes with as many as 40 students, one period spent in an informal, small group setting with a native English speaker gives each student a chance to speak and converse naturally. Neria, who has supervised the program at Tchernichovsky since the time of the Gulf War in 1991, remembers the volunteers that year wearing gas masks and sitting in the school's bomb shelters along with everyone else. She says, "I think that the program has been a great success. It has brought even more educational value than just learning English or getting the chance to talk. Some of the volunteers and students have developed relationships like those between grandparents and grandchildren, with real love and respect. Some of the students even keep in touch with their tutors after they graduate - when they're in the army, and afterwards. They send e-mails to each other, right up to now." And as for the students, their feelings about the Winter in Netanya program are quite obvious. As if the smiles on their faces and eager participation were not enough to show their appreciation, a large poster standing in the school's foyer says all there is to say: "Dear Volunteers, Welcome. We are so HAPPY to have you here with us!"