Language as a portal to possibility
As our classrooms fill back up again with children, we can also cheer on their caregivers who very well may be seeking out new learning opportunities. In this case, I am specifically thinking of the many moms, aunts and grandmothers of Palestinian children who, through the nonprofit Lissan, are joining Hebrew language courses offered in their own East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
For now, let’s put aside the endlessly complicated politics and history of Jerusalem. I am taking my cue here from the Palestinian women I met who are signing up for these classes. They are, like so many women I know, necessarily focusing on the everyday, the practical. As Arabic-speaking residents of a city that runs primarily on Hebrew, these women want to be able to find their way down a hospital corridor, pick up mail from the post office, buy dresses at a store in the center of the city, present themselves at a job interview, and so much more.
In the spirit of some of the best nonprofits I know, Lissan’s origin story is intertwined with those who remain its key partners and stakeholders. Almost ten years ago, a group of Palestinian women from an East Jerusalem neighborhood, Issawiya, approached a few Jewish college students at the nearby Hebrew University to teach them Hebrew.
Their desire was simple. They wanted to have more independence to navigate their lives. And the premise was simple – language gives access. It can open up possibilities. The volunteer-based project ‘Medabrot Ivrit’ (‘Women Speaking Hebrew’) was launched, and it remains the flagship of Lissan. After all this time, Lissan still is a point of connection, linking Arab and Jewish women all over Jerusalem who are otherwise unlikely to meet. Rallying around this idea remains at the core of their work- the notion of using language as a tool for communication and opportunity.
Teaching at Hebrew University over the years, I have been lucky to come across lots of Lissan’s cheerleaders who took advantage of the social activism on campus. As one of its original partners, the University continues to provide classroom space and academic credit for Israeli and Palestinian student volunteers. Talia Vekshtein, Lissan’s current CEO, has a story like so many others who have engaged with Lissan. She started early on as a student volunteer and was hooked.
You can sit in on Lissan’s classes and get a sense of the enthusiasm right away. When I joined one of the newer classes now offered at local community centers all over East Jerusalem, I was able to hear the chorus of women explain their reasons for signing up – to help a son with homework at school that now includes Hebrew as part of the curriculum, to better manage governmental bureaucracy when accessing social security rights or medical care, to further professional careers in fields ranging from social work to dentistry. The hands kept going up. Their answers varied, but each, in its own way, was laden with hopefulness.
As the women contemplated the conjugation of the proper Hebrew sentences in class, you could almost sense how they were reconfiguring what may be possible for them in the future. The coordinator of Lissan’s new ‘A Taste of Hebrew’ program, Mina Hashemeha, mirrors these sentiments. Like the many team members and volunteers who are engaged with Lissan, she exudes a sense of confidence in the ability of these women to take on a more significant role in the public sphere and shape the social and economic fabric of the city.
So even with all of the challenges that life holds for these Palestinian women as residents of Jerusalem, we can again follow their cue. We don’t yet know the potential of all these efforts.
Joining a Lissan classroom I was reminded of a part of language studies that I had since forgotten. The excitement of it all, especially when you begin to crack the code…. The fun that comes when a new language becomes such a daily tool for living. It has been decades since my own journey, but I will always feel a great affinity towards anyone who takes on learning a new language as an adult. It is such a humbling experience that, with persistence, can turn into a boldly empowering one. Accessing an entirely new language opens up our receptivity in countless ways.
With years of experience, the team at Lissan – which is Arabic for ‘language’ or ‘tongue’- has built a pedagogy adapted specifically for the needs of Arabic-speaking residents of Jerusalem. The class is completely interactive, with an emphasis on speaking skills that help to build confidence in the language. Practical examples abound. With each class exercise, the women can imagine themselves traversing the public spaces of the city equipped with the basics for communication, not having to rely on other family members to act as translators. It all seems doable.
Talia, Mina and the rest of the team at Lissan have spent time recently reviewing their underlying rationale, the ‘why’ of their efforts. Grounded by the idea of linguistic justice, Lissan’s ‘theory of change’ remains remarkably aligned with the original impetus for their efforts – that greater access to language leads to more opportunity. Being open and clear about this is essential. Lissan is better able to stay true to its core approach while transitioning from a grassroots initiative with its original partners – the Issawiya Community Center and Hebrew University – to a growing nonprofit whose partners include the Jerusalem Municipality, the MA’AN – Workers Advice Center, and the MATI Jerusalem Business Development Center.
As the toolkit of a Hebrew language becomes available to the women studying with Lissan, unexpected gateways may open up for them. We can see if it can keep shifting what is visible in our public spaces, what new voices may be heard on the city landscape. By doing so, Lissan is making the world seem smaller and more expansive, all at the same time.