By Meredith van der Walde
(Summer Intern at Bakehila; 20-year-old college student from Massachusetts)
During the first three weeks of my internship at Bakehila, my time was split in half between work in the office and visits to the various neighborhoods. When I first learned that I would be helping out at the summer program in Gilo, I assumed that I would be more or less of an onlooker since Maavarim is an established program with teachers and year-of-service volunteers who lead both academic and extracurricular activities. Fortunately enough, I was able to put my English-speaking background to good use and tutor kids in English during set times of the day. I also took advantage of break time to talk with the children. Though our conversations were not always the most fluid and complex, they were fun.
Volunteering at the summer program in Gilo (Maavarim) for just two short weeks, I encountered an array of challenges and obstacles. At times, I found it difficult to teach English when I myself had little to no background of the Hebrew equivalents of words. I came in not knowing the children's English skills; did they sufficiently know the alphabet, colors and numbers? I did not want to teach them vocabulary well ahead of their age group, but I thought it would be nice to give them a challenge. I also realized it was nearly impossible to hold a substantial conversation for more than a couple of minutes before the Israeli child to whom I was speaking would say "ma?" ("What?") or until I would say (with a smile on my face, of course) "lo hevanti" ("I don’t understand"—one of the few Hebrew phrases I actually do know). The few times I saw a student visibly upset, I knew there was nothing I could do or say besides put my hand on his/her shoulder and wait for a Hebrew-speaking volunteer to come and find out what had happened. At these times, I was literally and figuratively at a loss for words. As one of the few Americans amongst Israeli teachers, volunteers, and students, I had to accept that when I would walk into a room, I would, 9.5 times out of 10, not understand what was being said.
As a former camp counselor for three consecutive summers, I learned that patience is important when interacting with children. But as a volunteer and English tutor for students who don't speak my language, I have recently learned that patience is absolutely imperative. Without it, any lines of communication that do happen to exist weaken and/or deteriorate instantly. There were instances when I would say a sentence in English and the two girls that I tutored in the mornings would not understand what I was trying to say. Their smiles turned into pouts, they whined (I assumed from the tone of their voice), and they would close their workbooks. During these moments, I tried to keep a smile on my face and encourage them to not give up. I would use simple phrases, such as "workbook!" and easy-to-understand motions (i.e. pointing to the workbook and vigorously nodding my head up and down as if to say, "keep going"). The activities and games that I had created prior to Maavarim, such as bingo, memory games, and color matching, were fortunately successful and sometimes kept my tutees engaged and focused at times when the workbook became too tedious.
Interestingly enough, the greatest roadblock that I faced as an English tutor and volunteer—the language barrier—is what made my experience at Maavarim so unique. There were times throughout my two weeks in Gilo that I would be sitting amongst the nine year-of-service volunteers and 50 or so students who attended the summer program and have this crazy realization that: I am across the world living in Israel, surrounded by people whom I have formed connections and friendships with, despite the fact that English is not their first language and Hebrew is not mine. These moments would oftentimes creep up on me when the Israelis would break out into song: the day they sang happy birthday (in Hebrew, of course) to Raz, a year-of-service volunteer, and in the afternoons when Itamar, another volunteer, would play his guitar and the kids would sing along.
On the last day of the program, we had a music session during the 4th and 5th graders' English classes. I passed around lyrics to Let it Be, Hey Jude, Here Comes the Sun, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. For half an hour in each class, the children sang the English songs (to the best of their abilities) and Itamar played the guitar. I felt the sense that the music, particularly the songs by the Beatles, which the kids seemed to know fairly well—provided a common thread between the Israelis and myself. We were all reading the same lyrics, singing to the same tune, despite the fact that we grew up on different sides of the world, each having been taught a different primary language. Singing together on the final day was an incredible way to wrap up my time at Maavarim.