A once-a-week conversation in English between a student in Israel and a volunteer overseas is changing lives for the students, and the volunteers, who are mainly retirees.
Started four years ago in Ottawa by Sarah Gordon and her husband, Rabbi Sender Gordon, Israel Connect began with 10 pairings of students and volunteers.
“Now, we have 120 volunteers in Ottawa and 327 worldwide,” said Sarah Gordon.
“It is a very meaningful program, and I am proud to be part of it,” said Ottawa volunteer Helen Zipes, who is partnered with Esther, a 12-year-old girl born in Israel to a family who had come from Ethiopia. Esther is the youngest of nine children.
Many of the students participating in the Israel Connects program are from families of recent immigrants.
“It’s a win-win as far as I’m concerned. It’s good for the kids. We talk about current events, and I pick up my iPad and show her the snow,” said Zipes.
“Every week, we’re given a story to read,” she said. “The student reads the story in English and we discuss mispronunciations and what she doesn’t understand. You realize how complicated English is. She catches on right away; she’s very bright.
“The stories are very interesting. The theme is ‘heroes,’ and I told Esther her parents are heroes because they left everything they knew and wanted their children to have a better life. Esther speaks Hebrew fluently, Amharic, and now, English. It obviously helps to speak to someone in everyday conversation.”
Zipes was recently in California for six weeks after her son and daughter-in-law had a baby. Yet, despite the time difference, she still kept her weekly meetings with Esther.
Israel Connect is now in seven cities in North America and in England as well, said Gordon. “And it started right here in Ottawa.”
The Gordons have not yet met Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, but “he has met with his staff about us, and he has been showcasing our program at various speaking events,” she said.
“The minister of education in Israel wanted to know why schools in the neighbourhoods we were serving with Israel Connect – in Yavne, Rishon LeZion and Ramla – were performing better than comparable neighbourhoods, and the Ministry went to investigate,” said Gordon.
“They tweeted about it and spoke about it. Inspector/supervisor Miriam Kluska [of Israel’s Education Ministry] is now working to refer schools to Israel Connect who need more assistance. We’re running a trial and seeing where that takes us. We will meet once again after the trial is finished, and see how we can work together with the ministry to move forward.”
What’s involved is a weekly Skype call to Israel in the morning (Ottawa time) between 8 and 10 am. The volunteer and student meet online for a half-hour to talk and learn together, providing a genuine English immersion experience for the Israeli student.
“Our real success story is that the students love it,” said Gordon. “It’s the benefit of mentorship by someone outside their normal circle. The entry exam for university is one-third English, one-third Hebrew and one-third math and science. So it’s the difference between have and have-not if they haven’t been exposed to enough English.
“The kids love to come and they form a fantastic friendship with their volunteer.”
Visit www.IsraelConnect.today to learn more about Israel Connect or to become a volunteer.
“We’re always open for more volunteers,” added Gordon.