Israel Connect builds ‘living bridge’ between mentors, youth

For the last three years, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, through the Partnership 2Gether program, has provided funding to Israel Connect’s efforts to arrange English-language mentorship for Israeli youth. The funding supports Israel Connect to recruit and train Ottawa volunteers who act as mentors and are the backbone of the program.

Israel Connect pairs the volunteer mentors in North America with students across Israel to improve their English proficiency, increase their access to higher education and put them on the path to economic mobility. Once a week, mentors lead live one-on-one video meetings focused on English conversation, reading, and vocabulary development.

The program, which is receiving $6,000 in funding from Federation this year, was launched in Ottawa about nine years ago by Sarah Gordon. The program has grown to include students throughout Israel, and in particular in Ottawa’s Partner Region, the Galilee Panhandle which includes Metulla, Kiryat Shmona, Galil Elyon, Mevo’ot HaHermon, and Yessod HaMa’ala.

“English is the No. 1 barrier to social mobility in Israel and it is heavily correlated to economic status and region,” said Gordon about why she started the program. “It’s a barrier to higher education for kids because you need a very high level of English to carry on in school.” She explains that in Israel, it is like “you have 40 kids in a 40-minute class, and everyone spoke for one minute,” that’s the standard English experience for the day for some of these children.

And so, Israel Connect was founded. From just 10 Ottawa-based mentors to now more than 500 connections being made every week, the program has grown rapidly in its first decade.

“Our first 50 to 60 mentors were all here in Ottawa,” said Gordon. “Over the years, we’ve had up to more than 100 Ottawa individuals participate.”

But when the students do buy-in, it’s an amazing experience, said Merovitz, who is currently spending about an hour a week mentoring an Israeli youth.

“This year in particular my student has just blossomed, she’s just blooming,” said Merovitz. “She was very reticent initially about speaking and now her (vocabulary) explanations are… better than an anglophone. It’s nice to see that we’re having an impact.

“You have the opportunity to engage with 13- to 16-year-olds in Israel … It's a way to meet real people,” Merovitz adds. “You’re meeting kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds, some secular, some religious. You do make a difference.”

About 60 per cent of the program’s students come from low economic areas, but anyone can join. The mentors are mostly retirees based in North America.

“We have two types of mentors — some who are doing us a massive favour and some who are just looking for a meaningful way to give back,” said Gordon. “During the pandemic, it’s been one of the only ways they had social interaction.”

Gordon refers to the program as a “living bridge.”

“We’re not just sending money,” she notes about the funding. “Our local participants are creating needed change.”

Israel Connect always needs more mentors. Sign up to volunteer at