Over 500 Volunteers Zoom to Great Lengths to Help Israeli Children!

Back in 2012, a former university classmate approached Sarah Gordon, an active member of the Jewish community in Ottawa.

 (photo credit: SARAH GORDON)
(photo credit: SARAH GORDON)

Back in 2012, a former university classmate approached Sarah Gordon, an active member of the Jewish community in Ottawa. Having landed a job in a very poor neighborhood in Israel, Gordon’s friend struggled with some very challenging students. Gordon paired two of the most difficult students in this class with English language mentors in Ottawa, holding hour-long virtual sessions weekly. Soon, Gordon’s friend mentioned this idea to another English teacher friend, who mentioned it to another friend, etc.

Within months, the informal network of volunteers and students quickly transformed into an official non-profit organization. Israel Connect was born! Many students sought mentors in this area as Israeli university entrance exams largely target English language proficiency. Competency in English language skills is a must for these students to eventually achieve financial self-sufficiency. Currently, in its seventh year of operation, Israel Connect has over 500 North American volunteer mentors.

When coronavirus swept the world, and schools struggled with setting up their online learning, Israel Connect realized that they needed to take the urgency of their mission to a whole new level. “As experts with at-home learning, we are in a position to help a lot during the pandemic, and we wanted to step up to the challenge,” Gordon said eagerly. A huge influx of students whose academic plans disappeared overnight came looking to the organization for assistance. Currently, with Israeli schools experiencing uncertainty regarding reopening plans, hundreds of students are on a waiting list - despite the organization having ramped up operations almost overnight and servicing hundreds of additional students.

(photo credit: SARAH GORDON)
For many volunteers stuck at home during the pandemic, the one-hour Zoom session with a student is the highlight of their week! The majority of volunteers hear about this mentoring opportunity via word of mouth. “This speaks to how much mentors enjoy doing this!,” Gordon emphasized, “Friends mention it to friends who mention it to other friends…” Shana Greenblatt, a volunteer mentor starting her second year with Israel Connect, values the relationships with her students. “I was so pleased to see each of my students become more comfortable and more fluent in English,” Greenblatt stated, “My students look to me as an older friend. I have encouraged them to loosen up and trust that our space is a place where they can be okay with mistakes, as a means of learning, and feel comfortable to ask questions and let me know their best learning style.” Volunteers also feel drawn into this program due to its home-friendly compatibility. “A lot of our volunteers get up early, get their cup of coffee, read the newspaper, and then turn on Zoom for their session,” Gordon stated. It’s also fun and gratifying with very low-stress levels! “There is little prep time as the lessons are provided by the program,” Greenblatt explained, “The investment on the part of the mentor can be as basic as reviewing the lesson in a straightforward manner, to creatively using it as a springboard for expanding discussion, working on grammar, vocabulary, comprehension, and general discussion.  With one of my students last year who was at a particularly high language level, we spent some time reading a book together.  It was wonderful.” Prospective mentors should also realize that “our students are not starting at zero,” Gordon commented, “A lot of our students know English from computer games and TV.”

Becoming a mentor does not require a teaching degree nor Hebrew language skills - just a desire to have an impact on someone’s life! If this is something that you want to dive into, simply go to Israelconnect to apply to be a mentor! Many students need you and can’t wait to start working with you!