Ambitions as a Masa teaching fellow

Why volunteer in this country in particular?

'Making a signifcant impact on children's lives': Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship participants (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Making a signifcant impact on children's lives': Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship participants
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last year, I participated in the Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship, which is funded by the Education Ministry and Jewish Agency. The program brings Diaspora college graduates from English-speaking countries to Israel to teach English to elementary school pupils for 10 months.
In addition, during the year, normally on Sundays, we would travel around Israel, learning about the country in an expanded, year-round, Birthright-type fashion.
I left my job, my life, my friends, my family, to spend a year of my life volunteering for what I believe to be a greater cause than myself – the education and welfare of the children of Israel.
I felt that I could do some real good for the country. English is important for Israelis to learn, especially children, for many reasons. It not only helps their chances to get whatever job they want down the line, it also can contribute to building the economy and assisting the State of Israel in connecting with the rest of the world even further in the future.
Why volunteer in this country in particular?
Full disclosure: I’m not a religious person. I had been to Israel once before, but I didn’t speak a lick of Hebrew. Still, something in me has always had a connection to, and a want to live in, Israel, but I don’t even truly understand it myself. Maybe it’s the sense of belonging, being in a country with other Jewish people. In America, I would never advertise my Judaism, and when I went to school in West Virginia, to some people I was the first Jewish person they had ever met. Go figure.
I WAS accepted into Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship in Haifa, and it was the city’s first year of participation in the program. Masa Israel also holds programs in 15 other cities across the country.
In my city, I was joined by 19 other participants. We all lived in the same building, traveled the country with one another, and some of us even became firm friends.
We were all given different schools to teach in with one other fellow, who would be your teaching partner for the year. We also had a host teacher from the school, a program director, a pedagogical adviser and a madricha (counselor) to guide us on our masa (journey) throughout the year.
However, something I found odd initially was this: When I went to school in America, I went with my next-door neighbor, the kid up the street, the girl a couple streets over, and so forth, no matter their race, religion or ethnicity. I was surprised to learn that Israeli schools are separated by religion and sector, and this is primarily by choice.
The program, being a product of the Jewish Agency, focuses mostly on the Jewish sector. For our classes, we would take six to 10 kids at a time. Sometimes we would sit in on classes, and sometimes we would participate in activities run by the school. We would go to the school four days a week and teach for about five hours a day. This was by far the most rewarding experience of my life. Learning about the country and teaching its youth, I fell in love with Israel.
I had never taught a class in my life before this, and I wasn’t sure if I would even enjoy doing it, but I loved every second of being in school. I started to become invested in the children’s lives.
I enjoyed learning their names, what they like, who they are, how they express themselves, and what troubled them, whether in English class or in life. Connecting with these little human beings warmed my heart, and this communication, keep in mind, would be conducted entirely in English. For some of these kids, that was a true feat to even attempt to accomplish.
That’s the beauty in the program, though. It forces the children to speak English to interact with us, while learning about American culture in the process. They must try to formulate sentences and recall certain words, even if only to tell me they watched a TV show the day before. There were several students whose English level skyrocketed over the year. Kids who previously couldn’t speak English at all began to speak full sentences with me.
We can’t take all or even most of the credit. During my year I was given two wonderful host teachers who made me feel like I had family in a foreign country, which really made me feel at home quickly.
WHILE I loved teaching in the schools, I felt like there was a big disconnect between Masa Israel and each of the cities they hosted. For most cities, they would outsource who ran the programs, and for me it was Oranim Academic College in Kiryat Tivon.
While the staff at Oranim for the most part was wonderful and accommodating, there were a lot of times when I felt I was lacking the support I truly needed, being an English-speaking immigrant in the country.
I believe Masa Israel books more Diaspora Jews to come to Israel than it can truly handle. For the most part, the professional development programs didn’t have enough spaces for everyone who wanted to join, the teacher tracks were selective, and things you were told you could do in the beginning of the year were no longer available once you arrived for your 10-month stay.
There were a lot of promises made that were left unkept. There was a lot of pressure put on us as teachers without much oversight, and a lot of times when Masa took too long to respond to inquiries and issues.
I felt we were treated less as employees and more as an advertisement for the Education Ministry, the attitude being that once we were already in the country, there was no need for extra hand-holding. In short, there is no such thing as human resources when you are a fellow in the Masa program.
Regardless of this issue, I had a wonderful time living and working in another country. Before starting, you just need to be aware that this program is not easy and certainly not for everyone. You need to make the best of your experiences, just as you should in life.
The true gift in this endeavor is the children. You will make a significant impact in these children’s lives. I had several parents come up to me, thanking me and telling me that my teaching partner and I are all the kids ever talk about. To hear that their child is no longer scared or discouraged to study English because of what you did – that is the true reward.
I couldn’t have decided on a better way to spend a year of my life. Feeling at home in a country full of strangers is a unique feeling, but if you have ever been to Israel, you know that the people are exceptionally caring. Just tell someone you don’t have a place to go for Shabbat or Passover, and watch them open their home to you or go to great lengths to find you a place to go.
This is where I live now, and this is where I am proud to call home.
The writer was a Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship participant during the school year of 2017- 2018 and is currently a Breaking News Editor for The Jerusalem Post.