Learning about Israel firsthand through Masa

Learning about Israel firsthand through Masa

Local college graduates teach for a year — and experience the unfiltered Jewish state

Ezra Brownstein teaches the letter D to children in Nazareth.
Ezra Brownstein teaches the letter D to children in Nazareth.

Jessica Bard of Nanuet is rooming with five other recent college graduates in a bare-bones one-bathroom apartment in the blue-collar Israeli coastal city of Bat Yam. It doesn’t have a functioning oven or stove, so they cook on two hotplates and a toaster oven.

On the other hand, Ms. Bard has gained five new close friends, and she can walk to the beach in 15 minutes.

Total strangers have welcomed her for Shabbat meals and shown her other kindnesses — like the woman who found Ms. Bard’s stolen purse on the beach and not only tracked her down to return it but also drove her out of town to get to a friend who provided a used iPhone to replace the missing one.

Ms. Bard, 22, is one of 165 English-speaking volunteers serving as Masa Israel Teaching Fellows for the 10-month school year. MITF is one of many long-term immersive educational experiences offered by Masa Israel Journey for people from 16 to 35 years old.

Fellows teach English at elementary and middle schools in Israel’s social or geographic periphery, including cities like Bat Yam, Beit She’an, and Be’er Sheva.

“It’s an adjustment from the standard of living in Nanuet, but I really think we make the most of it,” Ms. Bard acknowledged. “Honestly, I kind of love living here, because I’m getting a more authentic experience than living in Tel Aviv, where it’s all young people and everyone speaks English. The English here is patchy. But I’m close enough to Tel Aviv that I don’t feel like I’m cut off from everything.”

Ms. Bard majored in education and public policy and minored in political science and sociology at Penn State University. Hoping for social justice-oriented career — “I want to reform the education system to make it more equitable” — she thought it best to get some classroom experience before diving into policymaking.

And she wanted to get that experience in Israel, although she speaks “only a little Hebrew,” she said.

“I went on Birthright the summer of 2019 and it was my first time in Israel,” she explained. “I fell in love with the country. I’ve never felt connected to a place that life before.

“Since then, I’ve been figuring out how to get back. I did another trip in 2020, before the beginning of corona, through Penn State Hillel. I remember walking through Tel Aviv and saying, ‘I could picture myself living here.’ After college I only looked at things that I could do here, and someone suggested Masa.

Jessica Bard, right, of Nanuet and co-teacher Melissa Friedman of Maryland at their Bat Yam elementary school.

“It combined all the things that I wanted. I signed up for MITF without knowing much about it, because it just felt like the right thing. I tried to go in with the most open mind possible.”

A product of the Clarkstown public school system, Ms. Bard was placed in a religious elementary school near her apartment, along with roommate Melissa Friedman of Maryland. They are required to wear skirts that cover their knees and tops that cover their shoulders.

“It’s not the average Israeli school experience; most of my roommates can wear whatever they want to their schools,” Ms. Bard said. “And their kids, they say, are kind of wild. But the principal in my school is very strict and the kids listen well and are well behaved most of the time.”

Ms. Bard and Ms. Friedman work with small groups of fourth- through sixth-graders in a corner of the library. The host English teacher sends them her strongest students, so that the teaching fellows can help these kids advance their English conversational skills.

“My goal is to make them excited to learn English, because when you learn a language in school it’s usually so boring,” Ms. Bard said. “We try to make it fun and relevant, and we also try to show them they have the ability to improve. It’s discouraging in the beginning if you’re not getting it. I want them to know it’s okay to move at your own pace.”

The host English teacher gives them a lot of freedom and meets with them regularly to chat about how it’s going. Outside of school, the six young women can take any problems or issues to their coordinator from Israel Experience, an educational group travel company that oversees MITF in Haifa, Rishon Letzion, and Bat Yam.

Amos Hermon, CEO of Israel Experience, said the Jewish Agency-affiliated company has worked with 700 Masa Israel teaching fellows from the United States and other English-speaking countries for more than a decade. “As part of their program, the participants learn Hebrew, and enjoy a rich variety of lectures, learning about Israel’s history, heritage, and culture,” Mr. Hermon said.

“The participants also have various volunteering activities such as helping Holocaust survivors. Today we have two staff members who graduated MITF, which proves the special bond that the program produces between the participants and Israel.” He notes that 30 percent of MITF alumni have immigrated to Israel.

Despite her struggles with the unfamiliar language and culture, “I decided to reframe my thinking and see it as motivation to learn and study harder,” Ms. Bard said; she’s writing a blog about it, called Bat Yam Yoman. “It takes time, and that’s part of moving to a foreign country.”

Jessica Bell of Glen Rock, 27, is a Masa teaching fellow in Rishon Letzion. “I can read and write Hebrew but don’t speak much at all,” she said. “It’s definitely challenging. English is spoken throughout Israel but not everyone speaks it or speaks it fluently. But this is what I expected when moving to a foreign country.”

Jessica Bard prepares a poster for her students.

Ms. Bell came to MITF from an unusual background. “I graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology and was an assistant personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman and then a personal shopper at Bloomingdales’ flagship store for almost three and a half years,” she said.

“I had always wanted to teach English abroad, but I never got that opportunity since I started working right after college. During covid, though, retail changed. And I realized there was no better time to do it.”

She decided to teach in Israel because of her interest in experiencing the Jewish state. She’d visited once, when she was in high school, and her older sister was doing a semester abroad in Jerusalem. She got to Israel in 2016 on a Birthright trip.

“It was the right time and place to do something different and explore my Jewish roots more,” Ms. Bell said.

Teaching English to Israeli third- to sixth-graders “is a complete 180 from the fashion world,” she admitted, and she already sees its effects, just a couple of months in.

“On a smaller scale I’m learning to have more patience,” she said. “On a broader scale, connecting to my Jewish roots and identity is something I will take back with me. I love how the entire country celebrates Shabbat — whether you use your phone or you don’t — and I’d love to take that back with me because it’s a great experience.

“I live with five other girls, from England, Canada, and the United States. I have a wonderful host family here who invites me for Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Teachers in our school will invite us to their homes or offer to drive us home. I have learned that Israelis are harder shelled, but once you break through that they are so sweet and welcoming. It’s great.”

Ms. Bell also has begun to see the effects of her efforts on the students. “Just yesterday, they had an English test, and they were happy that they did so well because of us,” she said. “One girl cried because she got 100. To see that progress over two months is really nice, and I am hoping to help them progress even more in terms of conversation.”

Ezra Brownstein of Maplewood, 23, graduated last May from Hamilton College with a B.A. in world politics.

“In college, I began to feel very personally involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and resolved to get into the political scene in that area,” he said. “The only issue is that I didn’t know Hebrew very well and I didn’t know Arabic at all, but I still wanted to contribute in some way.

Ezra Brownstein of Maplewood, right, and roommate Jacob Steier of Long Island stand in what was once a private bath in the Roman ruins of Skitopolis; now it’s in Bet She’an National Park.

“I feel that education is a critical component of any lasting solution to entrenched political conflict in the region, because to know how to think critically is crucial to being able to engage with the other in a productive manner. So when a family friend in Israel suggested MITF to me it seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn the languages and get my foot in the door while also contributing to the next generation a skill that I am already good at — English.”

Mr. Brownstein chose an MITF track called “Tel Aviv+” that allows fellows to split their 10 months between Tel Aviv and a periphery city. He now teaches small groups of Christian and Muslim 7- to 12-year-olds in the Mai Ziada school in Nazareth.

“It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I had never visited an Arab city in Israel, and it is quite an eye-opening experience to see just how culturally different Nazareth is from Jewish or even mixed cities in the country,” he said. “I sometimes feel like I may as well be in a different country.

“In most of Israel, I feel there is a mix, in varying degrees, between ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ or ‘Middle Eastern’ culture. There is a push and pull between family and work, religion and secularism, collectivism and individualism. Nazareth, in contrast, feels very non-Western, or at least the balance is tipped very far in the non-Western direction.

“There is much more emphasis on familial relations that even extends to interactions with storeowners and people on the street, and there is absolutely zero distinction between religious and secular space. Lest you forget, the large Basilica of the Annunciation in the center of the city and the Muslim call to prayer five times a day are constant reminders. My three roommates and I — the only four fellows in Nazareth — have a joke that when we are in Nazareth, the Jewish population there is four.”

Mr. Brownstein describes street-long murals depicting martyrs, Palestinian flags, and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free” banners in English and Arabic; songs of resistance by Palestinian icon Rim Banna that the kids learn in music class; and students asking whether his allegiances lie with Israel or “Filastin” — the Arabic pronunciation of “Palestine.”

“You feel the undercurrents of distrust of the Israeli state and feelings of Palestinian national pride wherever you go,” he said. “Just being here for two months has given me a view of the conflict that is deeper than I could have ever imagined, and it has definitely helped me to understand and sympathize with the Palestinian position.

“There are, of course, also the feelings of fulfillment that come with teaching kids and seeing them succeed and learn, but for me personally the former experience is the most important.”

All three of the MITF Fellows interviewed for this article said they have been traveling across Israel with their new friends, often camping and hiking in the Galilee or Negev.

“During the break for the high holidays, we all rented out a giant flat in Tiberias and spent time hanging out and exploring the area,” Mr. Brownstein said.

Jessica Bell in Jerusalem

“More recently, we four Nazareth fellows hosted a bunch of periphery fellows for Shabbat dinner, then we went to Beit She’an for a weekend. We took a tour of the ancient Roman ruins and swam in a freshwater spring called the Sakhne. Getting to know the other fellows has been a pleasure, and the fact that we are so close has really kept me grounded in an otherwise extremely unfamiliar environment.”

read more: