I recently returned to my sleepy northern Israel hometown of Migdal Ha’emek to see my old elementary school through different eyes. My first-grade teacher is still teaching first grade, offering the same hugs, and two of my former classmates are now leading classrooms of their own.
All of them are working together these days with the school’s Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a program developed in partnership with the Education Ministry to bring in young Jews from around the world to help teach English in schools the ministry has identified as in need of additional support.
My visit was more than just a nostalgic trip home. I stepped through the doors of Giyora Yoseftal Elementary School as an executive of Masa Israel Journey, an initiative of The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government and the leader in immersive international experiences in Israel, which I am proud to now lead.
Now in its sixth year, MITF is one of the flagship programs of Masa Israel. My mission was to see MITF’s impact firsthand. In 12 communities across Israel, including at my own school in Migdal Ha’emek, these fellows are at the forefront of helping children in undeserved communities learn English early so they can succeed in school and in their lives long after.
I am honored to be able to facilitate young Jews from around the world in spending long periods of time in Israel positively impacting local communities while enriching their personal and professional growth.
Our joint goal, together with the schools’ teachers and principals, and the government, is to ensure that Israel’s next generation has the language and study skills needed to excel in a global workplace.
The fellows – most of whom come from the United States, and all of whom are college graduates between the ages of 21 and 30 – spend 10 months in Israel teaching English as a second language to Israeli schoolchildren while immersing themselves in Israeli culture and daily life. More than 100 fellows are currently working in schools across Israel. Some of these schools rank among the lowest performing and rely on teaching fellows for critical additional English teaching expertise. Simply having more teachers in the room inspires students in their learning and helps them realize the value of their education.
The fellows lead small group instruction and tutoring, providing a more specialized study environment and increased personal attention.
Migdal Ha’emek is a perfect fit. It warmed my heart to see students who reminded me of myself at their age, in the same classrooms where I too learned English for the first time. The school’s walls are lined with art crafted by the students’ hands, and the courtyard is still noisy with their laughter at recess.
Migdal Ha’emek is a small town with a population of only 28,000.
Many of its residents are immigrants from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, North Africa and South America. This mishmash of cultures has led to many challenges for the community. Its school system has traditionally lagged behind those in other parts of Israel.
But the MITF participants are helping to change that – change I experienced directly as I watched them at work in my former classrooms.
What struck me in Migdal Ha’emek, as it does every time I visit a Masa Israel Teaching Fellows site, is the way in which the fellows not only teach their elementary and middle school students, but also learn from them at the same time.
They may come from opposite sides of the world, but they share the same love of learning. The MITF participants and students find themselves in a sort of language exchange: “I’ll teach you English, if you teach me Hebrew. We’ll both sound funny.” The fellows are modeling adaptive leadership, and the impact is dramatic, with students often far more willing to speak English with their new American friends than they would be comfortable doing so with their teachers alone.
They also find themselves in a cultural exchange, including through the opportunity to volunteer in the community. Our fellows are helped to feel at home and to get to know the local community through BINA, the Jewish movement for social change, a longtime Masa partner.
The success of MITF is more than just teaching a new language to students who need the most help. It’s about teaching courage. It’s about the power of creating change, simply, quietly, one day at a time.
Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to lead an organization that is positively and directly impacting the community that molded me into who I am today. But as our teaching fellows program expands across the country, we can all welcome these fellows into our communities, supporting them and the students they serve. Together, we can help build a positive future for our schools, and for all of our students, that is just as bright as the ones we remember so well.
The author is CEO of Masa Israel Journey, the leader of immersive international experiences in Israel, including gap-year programs, study abroad, service-learning and career development opportunities, and an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the government of Israel.
Originally Published in The Jerusalem Post