I have heard that one of the running jokes about Israelis, whether it be politicians, professors, store clerks, or simply passerby on the street, is that they are in constant competition with each other over who can say less in more time.
When I first arrived here in late August to teach English, I attended a teaching workshop where that saying seemed to hold some truth. There were several important people who gave fairly long-winded speeches, and to be completely honest I was not dedicating my undivided attention to them. They welcomed us to the country and talked about how genuinely appreciative and proud of us they were for making the decision to drop everything at home and move to Israel for almost a full year. I’ve heard similar sentiment from various individuals; our program director, our counselors, our education coordinator, our host teachers, random people I’ve met throughout the past two months. However, for a while I had a difficult time fully grasping their genuineness and the reasons behind it.
My decision to come here was not a selfless one. I never looked at it as if I was volunteering to donate my valuable time for the betterment of Israeli education, simply out of the goodness of my heart, while foregoing my own desires. In fact, initially I was not even sure that I was going to come to Israel, let alone be teaching English.
There were very few things that I knew when I started my last year of college. I knew I needed to take a time out from science and school before deciding definitively what it was that I wanted to do next. I knew I needed to travel outside the US; I felt the monster of restlessness stir inside of me every time I thought about staying in Minnesota, raising his fierce head and snapping at my heels to get me to pick them up and move. The last thing I knew, much more certainly than any of these other facts, was that I had very limited funds to do this.
It was simply by chance, sometime during my weeks of online research into affordable options for new graduates looking to travel abroad- which included a home-stay in the country of Georgia (vetoed by my mother because I might get kidnapped), a farm in Tuscany (vetoed by my father after seeing the cost), and a private tutor in the Czech Republic (vetoed by both parents after telling the story of how they got robbed at knifepoint in Prague while on holiday)- that I stumbled across the Israel Teaching Fellows program. I immediately realized that it was exactly what I’d been looking for.
Who cares if I didn’t major in education? The program said it wasn’t necessary.
Who cares if I had no previous teaching experience? They said I didn’t need it.
Was I Jewish? Yes.
Did I want to live in Israel for 10 months? Of course.
Did I have $1,000? Just barely, but yes.
I sat there on edge refreshing that website in my frigid, crumbling college house for about a month and a half waiting for the application to appear.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love Minnesota, because I did and still do. It will always hold the countless memories of the past 13 years, which inevitably add up to the feeling of home. This weather-challenged state that may as well be part of the arctic circle- what with its “polar vortex”, its mountains of snow, and its refusal to cancel classes no matter what unbelievably horrendous things the outdoors decided to throw at us poor citizens that day- is nevertheless a wonderful place to live. I’m not sure that I could put my reasons for wanting to be somewhere else into words, at least not eloquently. You know that feeling you get after coming back from a really nice vacation? A sort of petulant, heavy-heartedness at being back home and having to go back to your same old routine. That was how I felt. I had an itch inside of me that no amount of parties, art museums, music festivals, romances, or even writing could scratch to satisfaction.
So, without giving it an excessive amount of thought, I registered for the ITF program just as soon as I could. It wasn’t until a few months before I was due to leave that I began to read some of the blog posts of my fellow program members. They were all writing about how excited they were to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged Israeli children and how difficult it would be to leave their homes, but how it would be worth it because of the meaningfulness of their work. To be honest, this was the first time that I really focused in on the fact that I would be teaching children. Sure, I had acknowledged it as the main point of the program and the reason they wanted me in Israel (and I knew I liked working with children, and how hard could teaching English to fourth graders really be?), but I hadn’t exactly been dwelling on lesson plans and the ABC’s all summer.
During our first few weeks here every other person we met flooded us with gratitude for making the journey all the way to Israel, especially after the events of this past summer. I nodded and smiled and shyly accepted their praise in response, but I didn’t really understand why they were so appreciative of me.
They were the ones paying for my housing, my transportation, and my training. They were the ones making it possible for me to live in my country of birth for a year and travel around Israel to witness all of the beauty it has to offer. They were the ones providing me with invaluable education about Israel’s history and the sea of tumultuous current issues surrounding this nation.
And what was I doing in return? Having a fantastic, rewarding experience teaching kids English for 25 hours a week? It hardly seemed a fair exchange on their part.
I did not fully understand it until my first few days in school. A swarm of beaming schoolgirls surrounded me as soon as I set foot on the premises, wide eyed and jumping up and down in excitement, trying to spit out simple English phrases just so they could communicate with me in some way. When I first met my host teacher, I could see her genuine welcome etched into the wrinkles on her face and the warm smile she wore like a bright piece of jewelry.
That’s when it hit me that they really, truly, with all of their hearts want us to be here. We aren’t just a chore to take care of, another task in the schedule, another thing needing to be placed somewhere. We are wanted, we are needed. We can truly help.
Only we, with our horribly fragmented Hebrew, can get these children to actually have a desire to speak English. Only with us foreigners from the distant land of America will they exclaim with thrill when we tell them we know about Justin Beiber and Taylor Swift, and that we’ve seen Beyonce perform. Only to us will they holler “I love you!” after ten minutes of disjointed, but determined, conversation. Only we can instill in them the confidence to try and fail, but eventually get it right.
I would not say that this realization completely altered my whole rationale for being here, but it did change my perspective. It added another layer, another reason, another sense of purpose apart from my own motivations for wanting to come to my homeland. I am under no delusions that I will have a positive impact on all of these children’s lives, but maybe, since I started out not thinking that I would really affect anyone, having even a small influence on just one is enough.