Jill Batya Virag Samuels
Jill Batya Virag Samuels
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A different kind of beginning: Musings on the first day of school

Everything she needed to know to make her way as a new olah she learned as a teacher of kindergarten

Yesterday, I rode the 78 bus from Merkaz HaIr (Center of the City), to Armon HaNetziv, where I have been residing as an Ulpan student and new olah since July 15. A little girl behind me continuously kicked my seat. Sporting a shining grin, she held in her hand a book that said, “Shalom, Kitah Aleph!” I chalked up her inability to sit still to sheer excitement for starting a new grade, a new school, a new school year.

Indeed, as I sit here in Ulpan and type, parents around the city — around the country! — heave a sigh of relief as Thursday, September 1 looms closer. It is the end of the chofesh hagadol, the big summer vacation characterized by lack of usual structure and spontaneous trips, neighborhood kaytanot and lots of kef (fun). On Thursday, children will trade in towels for backpacks and bathing suits for school uniforms as school, in its glory, will start across Israel.

On Facebook, too, my friends’ children outside of New York (where school shockingly doesn’t begin at least until a few days before Labor Day), are posing for the obligatory “First Day of School” pictures in front of their houses, further adding to the hype. As for me, an educator of 13 years, instead of unpacking my classroom to the smooth sounds of the Pandora Music Mix (not available in Israel), printing labels for cubbies and attending seminars about eye-catching bulletin boards, I am… a student again?

As of now, I have traded in standing at the entrance to my preschool classroom, greeting parents and children, to be the one sitting in the chair, being taught in my Daled class in Ulpan. It is humbling yet magical to be able to take in Hebrew, while being on the other side, so to speak, and watch my teachers use the same pantomimed techniques as I did in my own classroom to make the study of Hebrew come alive.

At the same time, however, a big part of me feels lost. I have been part of the ‘First Day of School madness’ for 13 years, and teaching is my identity. Watching the country prepare on a whole for this special day, I wonder what my part in it will be. How can I share in this special day as a bystander?

In deference to this special day September 1, I think back to my teaching jargon, to the words I used each day in the classroom, and how they apply to my life an an olah chadasha:

  • “Use Your Words”: If a child was using his or her hands on another child, they were told to use their words. Words are magical to a new oleh. Whether they are in Hebrew, a phrase picked up in Ulpan or on the street, or in their native tongue, words have the capacity to unite and increase cultural understanding. In my Ulpan, where people of 26 countries come together to learn and grow, words take on a special meaning.
  • “Make a Backup Choice”: When a child couldn’t play with the toy of his/her choice, he or she made a backup choice, a second choice. This introduced flexibility into the classroom, paving the way for the child to try a new experience that wasn’t according to their original plan.Flexibility is clearly the name of the game in Israel. Misrad Ha’Klitah lost your papers? Grit your teeth. Chances are they will find them. Yes, its all easier said than done, but it’s a learned process.
  • “It Looks Like You’re Having a Big Feeling”: It’s OK to acknowledge your feelings. Each day, I come into contact with 200 new olim who are happy, but underlying the happiness comes lachatz, pressure. What will their lives be like in a month? A year? Ten years? Will they make it in Israel? 200 people look to December 15 — the day Ulpan ends — with trepidation and hope as they soak in the best of their Ulpan experience and try to appreciate these next four months. And realize that this, too, while a world away from grad school and 9-7 corporate jobs, is real life. And its even harder than that, because stripped of social and familial ties, we are often more vulnerable as we embark on this new adventure.
  • “You Get What You Get, and You Don’t Get Upset”: The classic children’s verse. While it tells you to stop and smell the roses and appreciate what you have it also introduces a sense of wonder. Make the best of it, this phrase says, and in Israel, like that classic song phrase, “Yihiyeh Ma’sheyihiyeh,” it will be what it will be.

Perhaps that is what I need to keep in mind as the school year is about to start with gusto. That while I am missing out on the First Day of School 2016, there will no doubt be other brand new experiences here just under the horizon.

I wish the children of Israel a year of growth and laughter, and may they continue to thrive in this beautiful land.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Barak Ben-Tor, Barak Mordechai HaKohen ben Edit. Infused with Zionist spirit, Barak lives on in my thoughts and in those of everyone who loved him. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

About the Author
Jill Batya Virag Samuels made aliyah in 2016 from New York City and resides in Jerusalem.
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