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Teaching English Underground: My Gap Year in Southern Israel

Michal Shany, alumna of a Masa Israel gap year program

December 6, 2011 | 7:52 am

“Your classroom is just down these stairs,” the principal of Amereem Elementary School in Be’er Sheva, Israel told me. I smiled and briskly walked downstairs. The time it took me to reach the final step was well coordinated with how long it took me to translate the sign posted on the wall: ‘bomb shelter.’

A throng of smothering, excited children blocked the path to the makeshift concrete classroom. We were underground and the only ventilation came from a slow-rotating fan. Second-hand smoke wafted in through the long-since useable vents from the adjacent teachers’ room. Sweat poured down the nape of my neck as I stuttered, “Shalom. My name is Michal and I arrived from California to help you learn English.”

The teacher, armed only with her own two feet planted firmly on the ground, and a voice that could compete with that of Zeus calling from the Heavens, tried to quell the situation. But the children continued to shriek.  So I decided to do the only thing that a lifetime of suburban schooling had taught me—change my tone and the level of regard in my voice. I waited for a pause in the turmoil to politely tell the children that if they helped me with Hebrew, I would help them with English. I knew that to gain respect from others, one must be humble and empathetic. I also knew that slight bribery in the form of stickers produced completed homework assignments, and that often, hugs were more important than the lessons themselves. In exchange for love, the students might increase their level of performance.

Five months into my Volunteer National Service Year for the Israeli Government through Masa Israel Journey, I have realized that accomplishments are all relative. Society says that good grades should instill a certain sense of pride. The only selfless volunteering I knew was always supervised—with ‘thank-yous’ flowing freely. And so, when a sixth grade boy named Tomer asked if I could tutor him more after school, I felt a new sense of pride.

When Tomer arrived for his lesson, he was still dressed in his soccer uniform.  Panting, he explained that he had left his practice early. I was dumbfounded that the youngster had left an activity he loved in order to respect my schedule. This was an accomplishment in itself.  But there was still more to come, I realized when his mother called to thank me later that week. Her foreign accent thick with rolling r’s, she apologized for not being able to help Tomer herself. I later learned that Tomer was Muslim and received refugee status in Israel. I was astonished and thrilled that his mother felt comfortable enough to send him to my home—a Jewish girl’s home—for the extra help he needed.

Flash forward two months.  I am still living in Beer Sheva, but the backdrop has changed as missiles literally pound my front doorstep. Operation Cast Lead is underway, and the slow churning sirens of “Red Alert” creep into every household, finding the cracks in Jewish and Arab windows to reach the residents and warn them of impending danger. Our school has been closed for nearly two weeks and the irony of teaching in a bomb shelter has all but lost its humor.

A month prior to Operation Cast Lead, I was relocated to volunteer in a village for adults with Down Syndrome. Luckily, I continued to see Tomer, as he was one of my neighbors in the densely stacked apartments of Schoona Daled. His mother still greeted me with her foreign tongue, and Tomer still sat beside me in the community center as I helped him with his English homework.

The interpersonal respect I experienced in the developing Negev desert affected me deeply. I know that my contributions towards Tomer, regardless of discriminatory prejudices he may face in his life, will help him become a better student. I hope that when he is older, he will remember the patience, respect and study habits I showed him, and possibly feel more positively toward Israel. While accomplishments may be relative, I feel a great sense of pride for my work in southern Israel.


Michal Shany is an alumna of a gap year program through Masa Israel Journey, a project of the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

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