Gili Bar always wanted to spend extended time in Israel, but when he took the chance to participate in the Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship, it was just the beginning of the journey.

WHEN Australia was engulfed by flames earlier this year, Gili Bar could not ignore that his homeland was burning – despite being far-flung on the other side of the world. He was midway through his Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship, and he was preparing to run the 42.2 kilometre Tel Aviv marathon.

“I wanted to go back and help [but] I said to myself, let me do something meaningful. I thought, let me run to help the animals in Australia. It was the closest thing I could do to going back and helping.”

And so Gili teamed up with another Aussie in Tel Aviv and together they developed a social media awareness campaign – and raised more than 3500 shekels for Australian wildlife rescue organisation, WIRES.

“It was a great experience. I am always going to be an Australian, and that’s never going to change.

“But now I’ve got another identity too – I always have had another identity here in Israel – and I felt connected here as well.”

THE past year has been a whirlwind for the 30-year-old from Melbourne. Up until mid-2019, Gili had been working in retail banking for almost five years. During that time he also completed a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

“I wanted to come to Israel for many years, but I guess it was never the best time to quit my job, sell my car and pack my bags,” he tells.

Gili has had a strong relationship with the Holy Land for his whole life: His parents are both Israeli, he is fluent in Hebrew and he guesses he has visited Israel around 10 times over the course of his life.

“Taking a vacation and living in a place are two very different things,” he notes.

“But then I basically said to myself, okay, let me pause, let me trust my gut, and let’s go.”

And so Gili sat, faced with the Google search page, his fingers punching the keys: “Teaching in Israel”. Up came information about the Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship, a 10-month program where university graduates live, teach and volunteer in an Israeli community.

“The framework itself was very value-driven and to help children in different sectors in Israeli society. It was an opportunity to connect and provide mentorship to these kids, help them with a skill, and inspire them to learn English,” says Gili.

“It’s becoming more and more important for us to become a global society and to help inspire the kids to learn English is very important. And I just thought, why not try something new?”

Gili made a few enquiries. Two weeks later, he arrived in Haifa, Israel.

ON the first day that Gili walked through the gates of the Haifa primary school HaMeginim, he had no idea of what to expect.

“We just knew that there would be a balagan – and there was!”

“There were kids screaming and jumping, teachers shouting, things were just everywhere. There was a lot of excitement, because the kids were coming back from school holidays, so they were excited to see their friends again.”

In the first few days, there was a lot of observing and training.

“We were told, just be ready for anything. And we were.”

Gili taught English to children from years 3-6. With experience in personal training and soccer coaching in his 20s, Gili was pleased to be able to integrate physical activities into learning, “helping to foster a connection”, he says.

“I think the kids responded really well over time. It was trust that took time to build. I’d say really in a general sense, it probably took about three or four months to really feel comfortable with being that mentor for them.”

When not teaching, Gili intimately explored Israel in a way he hadn’t before. He hired a car a few times and just drove, to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and beyond. Gili immersed himself into the very fabric of the country and its different segments – Christianity, Islam and Druze.

“I covered a lot of Israel. I have a deep connection to my family history here – and a love for the land.

“You’ve got the desert, the mountains and the sea. It’s a beautiful country. Then, to be in Israel during the chagim, it was really nice to be around.

“And I felt like I connected with the people really, really well,” he muses, continuing, “You’re going to have a thick skin over here. Things don’t just come to you. You really need to be assertive!”

It was a long way from the Caulfield he grew up in, but Gili wondered whether he could see himself in Israel long-term.

“If you’re going to make that move, It’s important that you need to be able to visualise, how are you going to manage here? How are you going to fit in the country? Do you feel like you can actually grow in this country?”

Within three months of being in Israel, Gili had his answer: He wanted to make aliyah.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing – and so began a global pandemic.

“I said okay, great, another challenge,” laughs Gili.

“Let me integrate myself into a country during the pandemic, we’ll see how that goes!”Gili ran the 2020 Tel Aviv marathon, raising money for wildlife injured in the Australian bushfires.

WHILE some of Gili’s teaching fellows decided to return home, he was resolute that he wanted to see the program through, and stay in Israel.

“I had to take it all in, and say, let’s just embrace this.”

He had fallen in love with teaching, and immersed himself in the new challenge of remote learning, also undertaking support sessions for best practice to ensure education continued.

“We had to experiment and see what worked and what didn’t. And to make sure more kids responded than didn’t. We kept things simple and kept things fun. But it’s a skill that’s learned like any other. We literally had to learn on the go.”

But Gili wanted to do more. So he volunteered to assist in providing remote education at a local secondary school, teaching older children he had never met before.

Saying “yes” to every opportunity that presented was important to Gili. It was an ethos that defined his experience, and carried him through the uncertainty.

“During the time, I saw a lot of people, my friends, panicking. A lot of families encouraging them to leave during the pandemic, and I said to myself, no, I’m going to stay.

“I really wanted to finish the mission here and finish the teaching program. We didn’t even know if it was going to continue, but I rode that wave.

“Optimism definitely helped me get through.”

Gili says his composure even surprised himself.

“I feel like I’m becoming more and more optimistic as time goes by as I explore that thought process. I constantly remind myself how lucky I am to be alive, how lucky I am to be healthy, how lucky I am to be safe.

“It was a great learning experience, to come over here, make a big drastic change, and learning that I can make new friends, make the adjustment and can succeed in making that change.”

Gili completed the teaching fellowship two months ago. And as fate would have it, his return flight to Melbourne was cancelled due to coronavirus.

In June, Gili officially made aliyah.At Masada.

WHEN Gili speaks from his Haifa apartment he effuses excitement, packing to move to a new apartment, and considering the next step in his career.

Reflecting on the past year, Gili says, “I had a normal six months of Israel experience, transformed into another three months of worldwide pandemic, and the story is to be continued.”

And just a few days later he texts, “I’ve been offered a role to coordinate the program that I completed in Haifa. I will be heading to Tel Aviv to get started today!”

Gili’s words from our Zoom conversation ring loud, “Trust your gut, be ready for anything, and just embrace the moment.

“While Australia will always be home, I’m now fortunate to have two homes.”

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