Why I Love Teaching Israelis by Yocheved Cohen

Why I Love Teaching Israelis by Yocheved Cohen

I work at an Israeli Yeshivah High School, a grades 7-12 religious boys’ school.

I teach English to five different classes—about 120 students. Despite some initial apprehension about teaching boys, I have come to really enjoy it and feel that I have found a place for myself at the school.

Here are some highlights of my first year.
* * *

My 10th graders take their first literature quiz, and it turns out to be more difficult than I had imagined. Instead of taking one period, it takes two periods, and a significant number of students have not yet finished five minutes before the end of class. Minchah (the afternoon service) follows our class, and attendance is mandatory. They cannot be late for Minchah, but, at the same time, I cannot allow students to take these quizzes home. They are for the Bagrut (national English program).

“How many of you are still working?” I ask the class. Ten hands go up. “Come with me to the teacher’s room and I’ll give you a few more minutes to finish,” I explain, gathering my books as the bell rings and students from the neighboring classes clamor to gain access to their homeroom class.

“But teacher,” Shmuel says to me, a look of genuine concern on his face, “Minchah.”

“Yes, I know,” I reply, and smile. “There are ten of you.” I seat the students in a side room off the teacher’s room and explain that they have a few more minutes, after which point, they’ll have a minyan, a quorum of ten boys or men above the age of 13, for Minchah. One by one, they finish the quiz, waiting for each other. Shmuel is appointed prayer leader. I gather the papers and head to the teacher’s room next door, saying regretfully that I wish there were a mechitzah (partition) so that I could pray with them.

* * *

Later in the year, I ask my 10th graders to write a composition about their most valuable possession. “It can be physical, tangible, or not,” I explain. “Think creatively!”

The next lesson, the assignments pile up on my desk. Two students have written about i-phones. Disappointing. Six have written about tefillin, one about the Torah, and another about his family (with an asterisk at the bottom apologizing for the topic because “it sounds like a girl wrote this.” I disagree emphatically, verbally and in writing.) Here are excerpts from what they wrote:

Family/Parents

“…A valuable possession can be found again or replaced if it got lost, but your parents are irreplaceable. Therefore, your parents are the most valuable possession.”

“I was asked to tell about my most valuable possession. I think I have many valuable possessions, but my most valuable possession is my family. When I was born, my family took care of me so well until today. They will be my family all my life. My family is so important to me for many reasons. First of all, they are so good to me and take care of me. Secondly, I will never be alone when I am with them. When I am sad, they make me happy. When I am in trouble, they try to help me. When I am hungry, they feed me. When I am sick, they heal me. I think I owe them a favor. I will find ways to show them that I am grateful to them. Maybe we will travel to some place together in the future.”

Tefillin

“My most valuable possession is my tefillin. I got my tefillin from my grandparents for my bar mitzvah a few years ago when I was 13 years old. I’ve had them for 3 years. They are so important to me because they are personal, and it’s a symbolic object that reminds us of the ideal of Judaism, to take the physical things and make them holy things with significance. The tefillin make me feel that I have a goal in my life, that I need to do a big and important thing. I plan to be covered by the tefillin all day and to remember that I have a big and important act to do.”

“I got my tefillin when I was 12 1/2 years old. I have had them for almost 3 1/2 years. I got my tefillin for my bar mitzvah from my grandmother and grandfather. I use them every day. It’s very important to me because according to Jewish Law, the Torah, it’s a very important mitzvah! It expresses the important mix between the holy and the unholy–take an animal and make it into a mitzvah! I hope I will be able to use my tefillin for many days and years to come.”

Torah

“My most important possession is our holy Torah. I am still alive only for our Torah and I keep its rules. Our Torah shows the connection between us and G-d. When we follow the many rules which are written in the Torah, we help ourselves and strengthen our connection to G-d. The Torah is so important that I am even ready to die in order to keep it. We got our Torah over 3000 years ago from Moses the Prophet. We are all committed to the Torah’s rules, and we will keep it in any situation.

* * *

I must tell you about the week-long almost-war we had here in the winter. Hamas terrorists launched rockets at the South and center of the country, reaching Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem for the first time. Sirens went off all over the country.

In school, we are asked to start each class with a chapter from Psalms. I choose Psalm 121, which begins, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from G-d…” My students know it by heart, and so we say it together. I read it in English afterwards, in part to expose them to liturgical English and in part for a little comic relief.

I acknowledge that our heads are not in our work and that I’ve adjusted the lesson plan to account for that. Nonetheless, we are going to try to focus a bit.

My students get to work, and as I circulate around the classroom, I notice Shaul’s cell phone placed brazenly on his desk. Ordinarily, I might confiscate it. Trying to show some sensitivity, I say, “Shaul, your cell phone. Put it away now, please.” He looks up at me, eyes round and full almost to brimming over, and says, “but Teacher, my brother is on the Gaza border.”

Even with everything going on—-several of our male teachers out on reserve duty, several female teachers managing work and family all alone, the news updates—-I am not prepared for this answer.

I take a deep breath. “OK,” I tell Shaul. “No problem.”

I continue to circulate around the room, quickly reaching Natan and Zev’s table. They’re good friends and both have trouble concentrating. Elchanan can be a bit of a trouble-maker. He has a tough home life and a penchant for belting out popular songs at random moments in class. I shouldn’t let them sit together today, but they seem pretty focused. Only Natan has his phone on his desk.

“Natan,” I begin, pointing to his phone and raising my eyebrows dramatically, hoping he’ll take the hint.

In an instant, I see the same, terrified look on his face. “But Teacher, my brother is on the Gaza border.”

I take a deep breath again, nodding and motioning with my hand that it’s OK, and then announce to the class that anyone with a father, brother, relative, or friend on the border is allowed to keep his phone out on his desk. At which point the rest of my students reach into their backpacks and pockets and place their phones on the tables.

The obvious occurs to me: I am teaching the front lines. Almost every week, one of my eleventh graders misses school when he is called up to the enlistment office for a day of physical and mental tests. The results of these tests determine his profile, which tells him which units he can try out for. It’s called a tzav rishon, a first command. The best, brightest, and strongest of my students will be selected for the most elite units, which often means combat.

It is then that I realize that, more than English, the most important lessons I can teach my students are how to be good people. A young man who has grappled with serious ethical dilemmas will be better prepared for urban warfare, for the impossible decisions that must be made when terrorists hide behind human shields.

At least, I hope so.
* * *

At the end of a class with my 11th graders, I am running late to a meeting with a parent. I ask Omri to please erase the board for me since I won’t have time to do it myself. I rummage quickly through my backpack, find a spare tissue, and hand it to him. He smiles and says, “No problem, Teacher.”

Then, as I gather my books together for a speedy exit, he says, “You know, Teacher, you are the only one who erases the board at the end of class. The others don’t bother.”

“Really?! Well, it’s important to me to do it. I want to be a good example for you guys.”

“Yes, Teacher, we know,” he smiles. I can’t resist the teachable moment, and so I tell him quickly about my becoming a teacher in Israel, how everyone discouraged me, but how it is in my bones and I cannot help it.

“Yes, Teacher, we know,” he says again, and smiles.
* * *

I see my 11th graders for the first time after their trip to Poland. Thousands of Israeli 11th and 12th graders make the trip annually, which is subsidized in part by the government. It’s the culmination of their history coursework (which includes interviewing survivors) and a touchstone of their high school experience.

As I take attendance, I ask each student to say one sentence in English about the trip. Some talk about the snow they saw for the first time. Others mention the American girls who were on the flight back to Israel, and how they used English to talk to them.

Then it is Avi’s turn. “Teacher, I called my grandmother at the gates of Auschwitz,” he says.

“Wow!” I reply. Then, pushing a bit further to clarify, I query gently, “Was your grandmother in Auschwitz?”

“Yes,” he says.

“And then she came to Israel?” He nods.

“What an incredible experience that must have been!” I pause before going on to the next student.

I think about all of the miracles this woman has experienced—-surviving Auschwitz, helping to establish the State of Israel, raising children and grandchildren in that fledgling country. And then I think of the tears she must have choked back when her Israeli grandson picked up the phone and told her, in unaccented Hebrew, that he was standing at the gates of Auschwitz.

* * *
I am part of a people that has seen its fair share of storm clouds and of rainbows, a nation that knows how to appreciate the latter as a direct result of the former. I remain deeply, deeply grateful for the opportunity to live, work, and raise a family here in Israel. This place is full of rainbows, and it is the place that I call home.

Yocheved Cohen grew up in the United States and today lives in Israel with her husband and two daughters.

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5 comments

  1. Beautiful and inspiring…thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Hadassah

    This is so moving. What an inspiring article. The boys are lucky to have her. She is teaching them so much more than English.

  3. love reading the boys’ essays

  4. Chaya Rivka Carasso

    Thank you. This article makes Israel and Israelis real. I loved the article, her warm approach and the love her students give back in their gentle way.

  5. I turned to JewishMom.com for some inspiration on Tisha Bav. I was not disappointed. Yocheved, thank you for this beautiful piece.

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