Meeting a teaching challenge

Meeting a teaching challenge

Jewish Americans spend 10 months in Israel's toughest schools

Like the majority of 75 Israel Teaching Fellows, Samuel Azner of Hackensack discovered the Jewish homeland through a 10-day Birthright trip and wanted to return for a longer stay. Now he is more than halfway through a pilot 10-month service program conceived to provide English teachers in underprivileged communities.

“My background is in criminal justice, and I worked with children in Toledo and Michigan, and then in an adult special-needs program in Wayne, where I grew up,” said the 25-year-old. “Then I found myself out of work, came to Israel, and found out about this program.”

Now he and 22 others are teaching 20 hours a week in Netanya, while the others are working at schools in Rehovot, Ramle-Lod, Rishon LeZion, and Petach Tikva. Each are paid just $1,000 to participate. Expenses are picked up by the sponsoring Israeli Ministry of Education and Masa Israel Journey.

Hackensack resident Samuel Azner, formerly of Wayne, teaches English in a religious school in Netanya. Tamara Rabi

Israel Teaching Fellows ( is the newest of Masa Israel’s many “immersive service opportunities that allow young adults to impact Israel in a sustainable way while having a genuine Israel and Jewish experience,” said the organization’s North American director, Avi Rubel. About 11,000 post-college students are in Israel this year participating in 16 Masa Israel service programs.

“A month of training caught us up to speed as far as language learning, the Israeli school system, and how to teach,” Azner said. “Then we started in the elementary schools. I’m placed in a very large religious school, working with third- to sixth-graders. Things are going amazingly. The accommodations are really great, and there’s a very warm feeling throughout.”

He and a partner from Connecticut work with a wide range of students, from non-readers to native English speakers. Sometimes, they teach one on one, sometimes in a small group setting.

“It really runs the gamut from teaching simple letter sounds to assigning creative writing projects,” he said. “We have to tailor the work to the different groups, and that’s exciting.”

One of the children moved with his mother several years ago to Israel from the United States. Azner wants to help the boy retain his English and give him tools to use the language as well as he can.

“He’s similar to us, because we’re living here learning a new language,” says Azner, who is taking an ulpan, or intensive Hebrew language course. “Trying to get by with Hebrew, I’ve been losing some of my proper English syntax, so I can imagine how hard it is for a 10-year-old.”

The more challenging part of the job is teaching a small group of fifth-graders whose teachers identified them as very far behind in the mandated English curriculum.

“They are a clear example of why we’re there,” said Azner. “Sadly, English illiteracy is more prevalent than I’d thought. The kids try hard, but don’t get enough attention in the large Israeli classes, and they stop participating – acting out and disrupting the class. The teachers tell us we are making progress with them because we can nurture them in a small group.”

Azner plans to return to the United States when the teaching fellowship ends so that he can attend law school. “It’s important to me to help people who didn’t have the same benefits I had growing up, and I want to continue focusing on that as a lawyer,” Azner said.

The teaching fellows live together in Israeli communities, where they engage in volunteer projects. Host families and sightseeing trips are provided throughout the 10 months.

The program is proving so successful that Masa Israel is offering 200 slots for next year.

“There’s no better way to spend 10 months in Israel,” said Azner. “I can talk all day about the benefits. We are in ulpan, learning the language, while teaching English in schools, having a positive impact on the youth of Israel, and absorbing the culture because we’re not living sequestered with Americans. We have a great support structure, and total immersion in Jewish and Israeli culture. Most programs like this are five months, but being here for the entire school year is really special.”

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