Teaching Israelis that ‘English rocks’

‘I found the place I wanted to live and the Zionistic way I wanted to live my life,’ Morrison says of her first trip to Israel.

Gaila Cohen Morrison (photo credit: NACHSHON PHILIPSON)
Gaila Cohen Morrison
(photo credit: NACHSHON PHILIPSON)
On their second date in Jerusalem, Gaila Cohen and Chanan Morrison had a disagreement about what language they planned to speak with their respective future children. Both had been raised in North America, but he envisioned a Hebrew-speaking home – while she felt that English would be an invaluable second language for her children.
Not only did her viewpoint prevail in how they communicate with one another and with their five daughters, but Gaila went on to make a career of helping Israeli schoolchildren of all backgrounds sharpen their English skills as a tool for greater academic and professional success.
Founded in 2000, A.H.A.V.A. (“Anglit Hanilmedet B’Shita Hativit,” or English Learned in a Natural Manner) is the only nonprofit in Israel dedicated solely to promoting English literacy for children. The goal is to make learning English as fun, relevant and simple as possible. Gaila says that standard English-language instruction in Israeli schools is often insufficient, yet few families can afford private lessons.
“In our curriculum, book and programs, I try to make everything as simple as possible, so children can go step by step without big gaps of knowledge between one lesson and the next. It has to make sense and follow a smooth progression,” says Gaila, who has lived in Mitzpe Yeriho in the Judean Desert since 1994, and organized the bottle and can recycling program in her town as a source of funds for A.H.A.V.A.
The annual A.H.A.V.A. read-a-thon for first- through eighth-graders in Ma’aleh Adumim, Mitzpe Yeriho and Kfar Adumim typically draws several hundred participants hoping to win prizes provided by local businesses.
Parents and teachers tell her that the concentrated reading time makes a difference: “Whether they read Dr. Seuss or Harry Potter, after they’ve read 10 or 20 books in five weeks they jump up a level.”
Her easy-reading series, Reading Rocks, is used by English teachers and tutors for many – from third-graders to adults all over Israel.
Everyone knows her
Gaila Morrison’s face is quite familiar to Ma’aleh Adumim schoolchildren, because she visits classrooms to encourage participation in her classes and read-a-thon.
“Every child in the city, from fourth grade and up, probably knows me. When I started introducing A.H.A.V.A. in the high schools, the new vice principal said she’d introduce me. I went into the first classroom with her, and I said, ‘Is there anyone here who does not know me?’ Two girls raised their hands; they were new to Ma’aleh Adumim,” she recalls with a laugh.
Gaila is proud of the success stories her efforts have spawned. For example, one girl from an Amharic- speaking home participated in A.H.A.V.A. from fourth to seventh grade, and switched to the native English-speakers’ class early in seventh grade. The girl wants to be a doctor, says Gaila, and proficient English will greatly help her achieve that dream.
Rabbi Chanan Morrison also found a gratifying way to use his English skills. Though his career is in software, his cherished avocation is translating, organizing and explaining the prolific works of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook for the English-speaking world (www.
ravkooktorah.org), through books, columns and weekly emails sent to thousands of followers across the world.
During the Morrisons’ first “date,” in the Jerusalem living room of the mutual friends who introduced them, Chanan – then a student at Mercaz Harav yeshiva – suggested they study some Kookian wisdom together. They’ve been sharing it ever since.
Aliya was a given
Gaila says she didn’t really decide to make aliya; rather, it was a given.
“My father always said he would have liked to come and raise a family here but it didn’t work out for various reasons, and his plan was for his kids to make aliya and he would follow – and that’s what happened.”
Her parents, Faith and Stephen Cohen, and her sisters, Toby Pomerantz and Rachel Yeshurun, live in Ma’aleh Adumim.
The three Cohen sisters were active in the Montreal chapter of the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva, and after high school Gaila spent a year in Israel on a Bnei Akiva program.
“That year was absolutely phenomenal,” she recounts.
“I found the place I wanted to live and the Zionistic way I wanted to live my life.”
To prepare herself for earning a living in Israel as a teacher, she went to the Bais Yaakov Teachers Seminary in Montreal and then to McGill University as an English major, all the while teaching Hebrew and Jewish studies a couple of afternoons a week.
“After college I worked in my father’s office and in various Jewish day schools, and earned enough to build a nest egg and make aliya.”
She arrived in August 1981 and began a six-month retraining course, but didn’t finish because she was needed to start teaching in the Maimon school in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood. This is where she met the fellow teacher whose husband was Chanan Morrison’s study partner. Gaila and Chanan wed in February 1984.
To Pennsylvania and back
About five years into their marriage, the Morrisons and their baby daughter went on shlihut (outreach) to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. For four years, they taught Hebrew and Judaic studies and helped shore up the small Jewish community to which many Russian Jews were immigrating.
When the time came to go back to Israel – now with two daughters – Gaila was hesitant to return because she was concerned about finances. Chanan therefore made her a promise: If he still had not found a job after a year, they would pack up for America. “Seven days after we got back he was working, and he hasn’t been unemployed since,” Gaila reports.
At first they lived in Dolev in Samaria, but after visiting a friend in Mitzpe Yeriho they decided to move there as it was close to Gaila’s Ma’aleh Adumim family yet less expensive. For several years she taught English in schools and afternoon clubs, until founding A.H.A.V.A.
The Morrisons’ eldest daughter, Segulah, 29, lives in Katzrin with her husband and children. She practices family therapy and is studying to be an English teacher.
Hemda, 27, is a special-education teacher and works with A.H.A.V.A. in Mitzpe Yeriho, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Temima, 25, lives in Kiryat Ono with her husband and son, and is earning a master’s degree in linguistics while handling A.H.A.V.A.’s social media. Shalva Esther, 21, is doing national service in Tel Aviv, and Zimra, 17, is in her final year of high school in Ma’aleh Adumim.
When asked if she has a favorite aphorism, Gaila mentions two sayings attributed to Rabbi Tarfon in the second chapter of the Mishnaic compilation Ethics of the Fathers: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it,” and “The day is short, the labor is vast, the workers are idle, the reward is great and the Master of the House is insistent.”
For this hard worker, the reward truly is great.