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In Israel’s south, English classes give kids a leg up

Tucsonan Aimee Katz (front right) with third-grade students at the Alfassi school in Mitzpe Ramon, Israel. Katz taught English in Mitzpe Ramon during the 2018-19 school year. (Courtesy Aimee Katz)

Leaving home is difficult, especially since I had lived nowhere else besides Tucson, except for sleepaway camp and teaching in Israel for short stints during the summers. A year ago, however, I traded in the Arizona desert for Mitzpe Ramon, a small southern Israeli desert town in the middle of nowhere with a population of 5,000 people.

So many people ask me, “Why Mitzpe Ramon?” I tell them, “The south is where they need us the most.” While Mitzpe temperatures soar during the summer and drop drastically during winter, the socioeconomic status of the community is consistently low. Furthermore, due to its distance from business hubs in the center of the country, the community lacks qualified educators. Students miss out on a quality education in essential core subjects such as English — a language that offers the potential of connecting the periphery to the rest of the world, giving students a critical stepping stone for their education, career, and future success. Where once one non-native English teacher from Russia served the students of the four schools in Mitzpe, the arrival of our cohort of TALMA teachers offered the possibility of English education for all the students in Mitzpe and the neighboring communities.

TALMA, The Israel Program for Excellence in English, is the fellowship that sponsored and coordinated my year of living and teaching in Israel. It is an ROI Community Project and joint initiative of The Schusterman Family Foundation, The Steinhardt Family Foundation in Israel, and the Israeli government.

Four days a week, I took a 45-minute bus ride with five other teachers to the small town of Dimona where I taught English. I taught at Alfassi, a religious school, and Ami Assaf, a non-religious school. On Sept. 1, 2018, I walked into Alfassi, nervous and unsure of what to expect as I spoke almost no Hebrew. The bell rang, students ran into the classroom staring at me, wondering who I was, asking me a million questions. I just smiled and responded in Hebrew with, “My name is Aimee and I am an English teacher.” Later that day, I introduced myself to the students in English and shared pictures of my friends and family from home, but they continued to ask me questions in Hebrew. I had to figure out what they were asking by having them use gestures, and I’d do the same. Some students knew more English than others, but day after day students became more confident in their English.

I did a bit of everything, from small group teaching to co-teaching, even teaching a third grade class by myself. The first few days were rough; kids ran through the classroom and screamed at each other. I had been in an Israeli classroom before, so I knew that from day one I needed to be strong and set expectations. I recognized that the students were fully capable, so from the start I implemented basic routines. Students had to wait outside the classroom quietly until I opened the door, raise their hand to speak, ask in English if they could go to the bathroom or get water, walk inside the classroom, and allow me to dismiss them, not the ringing of the bell. It took lots of practice, but they eventually got it down.

The school gave me the opportunity to teach 19 third graders English, without a Hebrew speaking teacher in the classroom. The first few weeks were beyond challenging; students were getting frustrated, but I knew that I couldn’t give up on them. They learned English through songs, body movements, games, talking to each other, and sports. These students went from being unwilling to say a word in English and not knowing their ABC’s to being able to identify letters and sounds, read short passages, and discuss texts with me. Soccer was a major motivation for my students, so if everyone took part we would play soccer, but only speaking English.

Besides teaching, TALMA enabled me to experience the life of an Israeli. Not having any family in Israel made it difficult to decide where to go for Shabbat. Adi Shacham and Hila Yogev-Keren from Partnership2Gether (the Jewish Agency for Israel program to connect Israeli and Diaspora communities) made it much easier for me. They provided me with the opportunity to meet local families from Tucson’s sister cities in the Hof Ashkelon region and Kiryat Malachi by spending Shabbat with different families. Once or twice a month, they connected me with a host family, who I traveled to for Shabbat, and, in this way, I could observe Shabbat through many lenses, whether it was secular or shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant). The people I met and the experiences we shared left an indelible impression.

This past year in Israel was incredible. I not only grew as an educator but also as an individual. I could not have had this experience without TALMA. For young Jewish educators, it is an opportunity not to be missed. Thanks to the TALMA staff, Partnership2Gether, my co-teachers, and the other TALMA Fellows on my program, I had the experience of a lifetime. Now, I’m back in Tucson as a stronger teacher for my students, a more confident person, and an activated member of the Jewish community — ready to share my love of Shabbat, Judaism, and Israel with my community here.

Aimee Katz teaches sixth grade at DeGrazia Elementary School in the Marana Unified School District.