|A hilltop awash in wildflowers overlooks Beit She’an in the Valley of Springs in the lower Galilee, where Melissa Chartoff, inset, is spending 10 months.|
If someone told me a year and a half ago that I would move to Israel for 10 months, I am pretty confident I would not believe them.
And if someone told me I would be living in a town called Beit She’an, I am not even sure I would know what language they were speaking.
The connection I developed with Israel started after a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in December 2013. Like so many other young Jewish Americans, this was my first exposure to Israel. However, I did not anticipate the effect this place would have on me at all. In the trip’s 10 short days I fell in love with so many aspects of the country: the landscapes and natural beauty, the food, the culture, the lifestyle, and the people.
After returning to New Jersey, I knew that I had to find a way to get back to Israel for longer than ten days. With a simple Google search of “teaching English in Israel” I came across the Israel Teaching Fellows website. There are a lot of subsidized programs available to get to Israel, but ITF was by far the most intriguing to me. I submitted my first application and that was when the most exciting time of my life began.
ITF works in eight cities around Israel, focusing in the periphery and on areas with overcrowded schools. Applicants are free to choose the city they want to work in at the beginning of the interview process. I was not very familiar with any of the cities but I knew I wanted to be in the north. I requested an interview with the coordinator in Netanya, a beach city between Haifa and Tel Aviv, with not much else to base my decision on other than location. By the end of our Skype interview, we had talked mostly about Beit She’an and how it would probably be a better fit for me. Beit She’an was already on my radar because of its location, so I switched gears and began the process of speaking with the coordinator here. I cannot imagine how different my experience would have been if I had ended up in Netanya.
In the months leading up to my departure, most people I talked to usually had little to no knowledge of Beit She’an. What I did hear over and over again was that it was hot. It is a very small city with about 20,000 residents and I have even come across Israelis who had never heard of it. Many people asked, and still ask, why I would choose to come to Beit She’an for 10 months.
At first, I didn’t have much of an answer to this question except “Why not?” After living here for six and a half months I truly feel at home in this city and could not be happier with my decision.
When I arrived in Beit She’an in September I immediately understood what everyone was talking about when they said that this place was hot. Beit She’an is in the Valley of Springs in Israel’s lower Galilee region, and it is surrounded by about 40 natural springs. In my opinion, Gan HaShlosha National Park (Sachne) beats the beach any day. In the winter, the hills in the area are green and lush and covered with colorful wildflowers. The natural landscapes here are just stunning.
When I decided to come to Israel, it was very important to me to learn Hebrew. There are formal ulpan classes as part of the ITF program – but little did I know that living in Beit She’an is basically a 24/7 ulpan. The city is not as Americanized as most of the bigger cities in Israel, and not a lot of English is spoken here. I was forced into a Hebrew mindset from the first week that I was here and it has been the best way to pick up the language. A trip to the supermarket during my first month here was quite an adventure, but now I am (almost) as comfortable there as I am in any ShopRite!
The majority of my time is spent teaching English in elementary schools. I had never taught formally before, and even after an intense introduction to the field, I really do enjoy it. I work in three different elementary schools, so I am lucky enough to know a lot of children around town. The Israeli and American school systems are vastly different in many ways but the children here are some of the sweetest, most energetic and caring that I have ever met. There is nothing better than the dozens of hugs I receive every day and hearing my name called out on the street after school hours. It is so gratifying to see genuine excitement from the students when I work with them; it has really validated the work I am doing and the impact I have on the community.
In addition to teaching, I spend some time volunteering in town. I was thrilled to find out that there was an opportunity to volunteer at the city’s biggest tourist attraction, the Beit She’an National Park, as an English-speaking guide. I have a background in tourism so this was a natural fit for me. It was not long until I became acquainted with the organization Partnership2Gether (P2G) and their offices have become like a second home. P2G is a local organization that works closely with the Jewish Federation in Cleveland, Beit She’an’s sister city. When you live in Beit She’an, it does not take very long to realize how strong the connection between the two cities is. I have had some amazing experiences and opportunities at both volunteer locations and being able to work in the tourism field has really provided such a well-rounded experience.
Without a doubt, my time in Israel has been the best and most exciting experience of my life. I have learned, grown and changed so much from this amazing country and the people here. Even on my first trip to Israel, I felt completely at home but the community of Beit She’an has welcomed me in a way that I could never have imagined. I am lucky enough to have a host family that I have truly bonded with, and I now have the little sisters I never had but always wanted! Some of the warmest hospitality I have ever received has happened right here in this city, and it has yet to falter. I wonder if there is something in the water of these natural springs that makes everyone so sincerely generous. There is never a shortage of invitations to join a local family for Shabbat and other holidays. I have had the best time making new friends, eating amazing food and I truly have a feeling of family here even though I am so far away from my own. I look forward to the new experiences that wait for me in the last three months of the program, but it will not be easy to say goodbye to this community that has become my second home and the people have become family.