Rishon Lezion with Masa ITF: First Impressions

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All 46 Israel Experience Masa ITF fellows from Petach Tikvah and Rishon Lezion.

After a whirlwind summer of traveling solo through Asia followed almost immediately by the jam-packed schedule of Taglit-Birthright, it was a relief to finally lay my backpack down in a place I could call home for a little while. Rishon Lezion, literally: the first to Zion, is the fourth biggest city in Israel and holds its own against the flash and flare of Tel Aviv. Rishon is home base for the year as I endeavour to teach English to Israeli elementary students, improve my Hebrew, and attempt to find Israel’s single best plate of hummus.

Now that I’m a few weeks in to my Masa Israel Teaching Fellows and I’m knee-deep in Ulpan homework, lesson-planning, and shakshuka-making, I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the beginning of this new journey.

Our program opened with a weekend retreat on Kibbutz Almog, where me and over 40 fellows from both Rishon Lezion and Petach Tikvah got to bond over ice-breaker games and time spent by the pool. The one thing that stood out to me immediately in this big group of people who would surely become like family to me over the coming year was that I was the only Canadian in a sea of red, white, and blue. That’s right, I’m basically Robin from How I Met Your Mother. No matter though, I came here to immerse myself in new cultures, right?

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My roomies/my favourite people: (from left to right) Ben, Darian, Alexa, Gideon, Jenna, and myself.

After a couple days on the kibbutz, we got sorted in to our groups of six roomates and dropped off at our apartments in the city. I have never lived with that many roomates before, and being the oldest one among the six of us and the only Canadian in the bunch, I was a bit worried about how we would all get along living together. Luckily, one of my roomies is British and the other four turned out to be pretty alright for Americans. On our first night in our apartment we had our own ice-breakers (an intense game of Never Have I Ever featuring Israeli wine), and it was then that I realized that the roomie situation was not something I would need to worry about this year. Since day one, my roomies and I cook dinner together, we do Shabbat together, go to the beach together, we take wacky trips to Ikea together (seriously Ikea here is like an amusement park for Israelis). When we get home we laugh at the silly things kids in our respective classes said, and we help each other out with Hebrew when it comes to the important things like ordering take-out sushi. It’s only been three weeks but it already feels like we’re a real mishpacha.

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Ben & Alexa sampling some wine at the Tishbi winery in Zichron Ya’akov.

Like Birthright, my schedule with Masa ITF so far has been packed to the brim with activities during these first few weeks. We visited Caesarea and Zichron Ya’akov in the north to sample some wine and learn about the original Israeli pioneers, we had seminars and meetings to learn more about the Israeli school system, a scavenger hunt across Rishon Lezion to get us more acquainted with the city, welcome meetings with the mayor, and seemingly never-ending Hebrew lessons to help us integrate in to Israeli society.

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Jenna looking out on to the abyss of Caesarea.

During our second week we began observing classes at our assigned schools. This year, I will be teaching at David Remez elementary school where there are over 500 students. My first few days in school I spent observing the teachers during their English lessons. At my school, students learn English from grades 3 to 6, so I get to work with kids of different ages and levels. My co-fellow and I take out smaller groups of between 3-10 students from class and work with them on a more individualized level. We go over class material, read short sentences in English, and play vocabulary-based games with them in class (never underestimate Hangman). After our first couple of days in school, my co-teacher and I became local celebrities. The students shout our names in the halls and enthusiastically wave, they bombard us with questions about Canada and the US and ask us how are day is in broken English. Nicole and I were even fortunate enough to receive marriage proposals from a handsome grade 4 student. I have learned that there is a children’s TV show in Israel in which the main character’s name is ‘Alicia,’ so now I also have my own personal theme song every time I walk in to a classroom. Safe to say that it’s hard not to smile when walking through my school.

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My group of advanced grade 6 students at Remez elementary school.

Before starting school, we kept hearing from teachers and previous ITF members that the Israeli classroom is nothing like we’re used to back home, and I now that I’ve lived it I understand what they mean. The best way I could possibly describe an Israeli classroom is ‘organized chaos.’ The kids are loud, they speak out of turn, they talk back, and they scream so loudly during recesses that at the end of each day my ears ring as if I’ve just walked out of an AC/DC concert. However, they’re also full of personality, bold, completely honest, and their faces light up at the prospect of learning English and leaving their classrooms with the Canuck and Yank celebs.

I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks in school as I get to know the kids and their learning styles better. I’m also excited to spend the holidays in Israel with family who I haven’t seen in a long time. It has only been three weeks since I started Masa ITF, I have learned more than I have taught, I’m exhausted in the best way possible, and I absolutely cannot wait for all the amazing experiences that are still to come over this next year.

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