I have to start by saying it has been a really busy first month on this program, and I honestly can’t believe how much has happened. Besides moving into my apartment, constantly being lost and adjusting to this new lifestyle, I have to say I am finally feeling good. I feel like I am learning the ways to get through the markets, which bus is best to take and how to not get taken advantage of in the Shuk (let me tell you they love doing that to Americans). Overall, I will try and sum up this month in the best way that I can!
The living situation has been an adventure of its own. I share a space with three other girls, one bathroom, and one full length mirror. Needless to say, we have all bonded pretty quickly, and I feel that I was really lucky with my roommates. The apartment came with its own set of issues, but I am learning that in Israel there is no sense of urgency so when you need something fixed don’t expect it to happen for about two weeks.
This month, the fellows and I went through many bonding activities such as hiking and camping in the Northern part of the country. We were able to meet the other fellows working in Rahat and the Tikkun Olam group in Tel Aviv. All of us cooked dinner together and hiked for over 7 hours the next day – and those who know me are probably laughing at the thought of me doing that, but I did and survived to tell the tale.
Aside from the bonding we have also been put through many hours of training before starting our work in the schools. Our pedagogical trainer Pamela thought it would be good for us to get a taste of what it’s like being in an Israeli school in Gilo. Which at first I thought, I have worked with children my whole life, why would I need to go and see this? Boy was I wrong, because schools in Israel are insane. Children are running around whenever they want, jumping off of desks, screaming at the teachers and at each other. By the end of this first day I felt like a train hit me and I think it is safe to say everyone was feeling it. How on earth was I supposed to help these students learn English if they can’t even sit in a chair for more than 7 secs?! Apparently it can be done, and this is one of the challenges I have to work through.
After spending a few days at this particular school, I started to see the softer side of the kids, they really loved having us around and were excited to learn. I worked with this one girl who spoke almost no English and I could see she was so nervous she didn’t even want to try and talk. I had an activity in mind, but I decided to just draw pictures and color with her instead. We ended up having a full conversation through art, I drew a picture of my family, my dog, my house etc and she began to understand what I was explaining. She did the same back and repeated the words I used to describe all these things in English. This was a really special moment for me because I started to understand it was possible to help these kids, you just have to reach them on their own level. We were at this school before Rosh Hashana and had the students write a word in English that described what they wanted to bring into the new year. The kids were so cute and drew pictures of apples and honey and wanted to know how to spell everything! It was sad having to say goodbye to these students, but I am thankful that I was able to start my journey with them.
Finally, I have been placed in the school where I will be at all year! I am working at an all-boys Mamlacti Dati school, which for those who are reading this and do not know, it’s a religious school. The school is located in the north of Jerusalem (I won’t put the name for privacy purposes) but in this school only 5% of the students and teachers know English. I also found out a lot of the boys speak French, which is good for me because this gives me another way to connect with them.
I started my first day yesterday and this time I went in knowing it would be a zoo. The staff were all wonderful and excited that myself and another fellow name Shira were there to help. Yesterday was more of an observation and becoming comfortable with the school and seeing the norms of the students. I sat in on one of the English classes and the teacher warned me it will be intense. I honestly have no idea how anything gets done because the entire time the boys were pushing each other, pencil cases flying across the room, screaming in Hebrew and just acting as if they were not in school (well by American standards). At one point I am pretty sure they were fist fighting in the back of the room during the teacher’s lesson. I felt that sense of doubt again on how in the world will I get these kids to speak English when they can’t do a simple task like not hitting each other!? I did notice there were a few boys in the front who really wanted to learn and even came up to me and asked me questions in English. It was funny because once I started talking to the boy, all the other students became curious about me. They all of a sudden wanted to ask questions and one thought I was a spy from the government. Overall, I know I have a lot of work and frustration ahead of me, but this is also a wonderful growing opportunity for myself and this school.
My experience so far has felt like a roller coaster of emotions, but I am really starting to figure out why I am here and what I want to contribute to these communities. I came into this country with other agendas and ideas of what it would be like and who I would be spending my time with which were quickly turned around for me. It’s funny when you start planning your life the universe almost laughs at you and makes you walk in a completely new direction. My whole life has been this way and I am used to being turned around and challenged. With Yom Kippur coming up I am planning to take that time and let go of this past year, to heal and to refocus my energy on why I am here. Israel as I have been told really shuts down during this holiday and you are forced to look at yourself. This will be so different because in the States it’s a normal day for everyone, but here I will really feel the holiday.
I am a true believer that this world owes you nothing and that it’s our job to give back as much as we can. Which maybe means staying in your own lane and working towards something bigger then yourself. I am so blessed to have made connections with other fellows on my trip that have the same goals as I do. I am looking forward to seeing where our work takes us these next few months and the new connections we will make with our students.
Julie Johns is a participant on our MASA Israel Teaching Fellows program and is writing a blog about her new life here teaching English in Jerusalem.