Thursday, December 31, 2009

Teaching English, learning Israel

Teaching English, learning Israel
Local volunteer sees federation funds in action

Israeli children view a robot demonstration at a Police Academy presentation in Kiryat Malachi.
Photo courtesy of David Weiner

Imagine a city of 20,000 people that has seven political parties, a 25 percent unemployment rate, a population half of which is disadvantaged and a school system with students that are primarily first-generation Israelis?

I am describing the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix's Partnership 2000 sister city, Kiryat Malachi, which I visited in mid-December. I was touched by the warm hospitality of the community and saw firsthand how the federation's support of the Hof Ashkelon region, which borders Gaza, is appreciated. I visited after-school projects, youth leadership programs, child mental health clinics and community centers that are recipients of the Valley Jewish community's donations.

The federation works closely with our volunteer counterparts in the Hof Ashkelon region by determining which projects will be funded by the TIPS program (made up of the Jewish communities in Tucson, Israel, Phoenix and Seattle). Phoenix area residents who volunteer more than five days can stay for a minimal fee in an apartment and experience the culture of Kiryat Malachi.

During my visit, I spent time volunteering in an elementary school, helping third- through sixth-graders with their English. The children were smart and engaging and very excited to use their English. Nearly every student has a home computer that gives him or her a connection to the world and a cell phone, to offer reassurance to anxious parents who may need to locate their children after a terrorist attack.

Not having experience with children nor being able to speak Hebrew, I was a bit skeptical as to how I could keep their attention and not go crazy in the process. I soon learned how to gain control, keep their interest and even teach them a bit of English.

The teacher started the class by giving students an opportunity to ask questions and then asked for volunteers to break into small groups for further discussion. Nearly everyone wanted to join. That was great for the ego! When it came time for a class break and a visit to the teacher's lounge, I was faced with a room full of sad faces, so I skipped the break and stayed with the children.

The girls asked me about Hannah Montana and the boys inquired about cars, while everyone wanted me to join their Facebook page. In practicing their numbers, I was having children count and tell me how many brothers and sisters they have. One Ethiopian boy had 10 siblings. As I walked home after school, it was rewarding to hear my name shouted in English as the children waved goodbye.

I attended a competition sponsored by the Police Academy for fifth- and sixth-graders where they were asked to come up with a logo and motto describing their school. Highlights included canine, robot and helicopter demonstrations, as well as exhibitions about sharpshooting and deep-water rescue.

It was a real contrast to see these young innocent faces flushed with enthusiasm as they learned about the strength of their local police. To see bomb-sniffing dogs sorting through children's coats looking for the marked coat was reassuring but sad. The Hannah Montana backpacks nestled up against the robots was a stark reminder of what Israeli life is all about.

When I wasn't at the school, the Jewish Agency showed me the projects that have been funded by Phoenix. Our sister city is in the area where kibbutzim and moshavim border Gaza and are just a rocket away. I stood on a bluff and heard the Muezzin call Gazans to their noon prayers.

I toured a mental health clinic where children are treated for the psychological scars of living in this area and the effects of the constant threat of terrorism. The director of the clinic told me they were preparing for a layoff of their professional staff due to a funding shortage. I worry about how the funds will be found once the rockets start to fall again.

One evening, I visited with teenagers in their last year of high school who were trying to decide if they wanted to spend a national year of service prior to joining the Army. As Israel prospers and children see the opportunities to finish the army and begin their adult life, it was refreshing to see the Zionist spirit. A war hero with only one limb addressed the students, and a silence overcame the room when he described his volunteer experience.

I encourage anyone who can commit five days to visit this region and help make a difference. Lodging is nearly free. Retirees, students or someone looking for a bit of rejuvenation would find the visit rewarding while being welcomed with warmth and generosity. All that is required is a willingness to help and an understanding of family.

David Weiner is chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix's Israel Overseas Committee.

For more information about volunteering in Kiryat Malachi, call Adam Tennen, 480-634-4900, ext. 1102.

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