After finishing 10 months in Israel in June, Lindsey Skerker returned to her home in Randolph having learned as much from the elementary school students she taught in Netanya as they did from her.
“Students are the best teachers,” she told NJ Jewish News. “They loved us trying to speak their language while they were trying to speak our language.”
Skerker was one of 25 American and Australian Jews working as teaching assistants in Netanya, where they helped third- through sixth-graders learn English.
They were part of a cohort of almost 200 young people involved in Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a program for Jewish young adults between the ages of 21-30 to teach English in Israeli schools. Skerker was also involved in the Masa Hillel Fellowship, a fellowship program run by Hillel and Masa Israel to help build the next generation of Jewish leaders.
Skerker signed up after graduating from Colgate University in 2014 with a combined major of history and women’s and gender studies.
Skerker attended Randolph High School; her family belongs to Adath Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Morris Plains. “I learned Hebrew in Hebrew school,” but until she went to Israel, she said, “I could only speak it at a very basic level.”
After her tutoring by the preteens in Netanya, she said, she is approaching fluency.
Skerker had been to Israel twice before, once as a Birthright participant after her freshman year at Colgate, and a second time during winter break her junior year. “Then I realized I wanted to go back, but not as a tourist,” she said.
Beyond honing her skills in Hebrew, Skerker learned another important lesson from her Israeli hosts. “They live in a difficult country,” she said. “They live in the moment and they are not afraid to take life as it comes. If it’s a nice day they are going to go to the beach.
“The students have a greater sense of independence than their American peers. They are nine or 10 years old and their parents work all day, so they make themselves lunch and do their homework by themselves. There is more of a culture of trust among children and adults,” she added.
Although she considered Netanya “a very safe city,” Skerker believes its children understand some of the threats facing their country, “but they have a lot more to learn.”
During the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, her students created a tree display and wrote their dreams and wishes on it. While some hoped for better grades or an iPhone or a new puppy, others wished for “peace” and “no more wars.”
Now a long way from Netanya, Skerker is still committed to working in the Jewish community. She is currently serving as the engagement assistant at the Hillel on the Penn State University campus.
As one of the nine people employed there, she is working to involve as many of Penn State’s 5,000 Jewish students as possible in the group’s activities.
“Hillel is definitely important to some students, especially some Reform Jews with whom it was not significant earlier in their lives,” she said. “But it is hard to compete with the fraternities and the sports here. There are 100 million things going on.”
After having graduated from a college with 3,000 students, Skerker said she is trying to acclimate herself to a university campus with a student enrollment of 96,000. “Penn State is a school that could eat my school for breakfast,” she said. “I feel like a freshman here.”
While she is “still figuring out what I want to do” in the future, she is happy, she said, “to have a job where I am able to talk about Israel. It would have been hard to come back from there and have to jump into a regular office job.”
Skerker combines her feminism and Judaism in a group called Challah for Hunger, whose website says it “brings people together to bake and sell challah to raise money and awareness for social justice.”
She said, “It’s a place where women can come and talk and bond over baking bread. So far it has been my feminist contribution.”
The idea of Israel still looms large in her mind. “I really want to go back soon,” she said. “We’ll see.”