Let’s chat: Bringing English to Israeli children - opinion

I never thought One Direction would even feature on my playlist and now it has the number one spot.

 THE WRITER and Leah chat in one of their weekly sessions at Bet Elazraki. (photo credit: Yehuda Kohn)
THE WRITER and Leah chat in one of their weekly sessions at Bet Elazraki.
(photo credit: Yehuda Kohn)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve started doing something small, yet significant. When I signed up for it, I had no idea the impact it would have on me.

I volunteer at Emunah Bet Sabah Elazraki Children’s Home in Netanya. Some of you may recognize the name, as I have written about Bet Elazraki before. In that article, I covered their wonderful program in which they take a number of their kids to Miami to participate in the marathon.

This time, I’m a volunteer in a program called Let’s Chat. It’s aimed at helping children to improve their English. The idea is to pair up native Anglo speakers, like me, with one of the older children in the home.

I heard about the program through a friend who volunteered last year. She’d found it extremely interesting and enjoyable, having been paired with a bright, 18-year-old girl. Their hour-long sessions, which took place once a week, comprised interesting discussions on a number of different topics.

When I was given the chance to join this year’s Let’s Chat program, I jumped at it. Bet Elazraki is a wonderful, warm place. It’s home to many children who have already faced significant problems and difficulties in their young lives. There, they have a warm, safe place in which to grow.

Before the Let’s Chat program started a month or so ago, I attended a short meeting with other volunteers. We discussed ideas for our hour-long sessions, cognizant of the fact that engaging with teens can be tedious at the best of times. Add to that the potential language barrier, the fact that we may not have anything in common and that one hour can feel like four.

The last thing we wanted, them and us, was for our time together to drag. The organizers of the program were at pains to ensure this didn’t happen. As staff members, they knew most of the kids pretty well and were able to marry us all up successfully.

Those kids whose English was poor were coupled with Hebrew speakers to avoid stilted silences, whereas others with good English were paired-up with people like me, who struggle with Hebrew.

How do we do this?

BEFORE MY first session with Leah, (not her real name) I was slightly nervous. What would we talk about? Had I prepared enough to keep us going for a whole hour? What would she think of me?

Fortunately for me – and entirely coincidentally – Leah and I have a mutual friend, Julia. Julia is my son, Rafi’s American girlfriend who spent her gap year volunteering at Bet Elazraki. During that time, she and Leah formed a close bond and became firm friends.

I turned to Julia for ideas about what to do during our weekly meetings. What should we talk about? What does she like?

“She loves music and One Direction [band] in particular,” Julia told me. That was it. We’d talk about pop music and 1D, as they’re known. Having genned-up on this famous boy band, I met Leah for the first time.

We hit it off straight away. She was warm, friendly and clearly as keen to make our sessions work as was I.

First, we swapped stories about ourselves. I spoke a little about Manchester, my hometown, and she spoke about her family. I was pleased that she felt comfortable enough to open up to me in some small way about a subject that in all probability was rather painful for her. I just listened.

Then we moved on to music and One Direction. Her face lit up at the very mention of her idols. I pulled up their song “What makes you beautiful,” on my phone.

Together, we pored over the words. I wanted to know how much she understood in a bid to ascertain how good her English was. Despite her protestations to the contrary, it was excellent.

We rounded off our session with a rendition of “What makes you beautiful.” With the sound turned up on my phone and the words firmly planted in our heads, we both sang along at the top of our voices.

I never thought One Direction would even feature on my playlist and now it has the number one spot.

The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Israel where she works as a journalist.