The Rehovot English Social Club
Teaching in Israel, or in any foreign country for that matter, can feel like emotional jenga. The responsiveness of those rare, enthusiastic students will send you skipping down the streets, rushing home to plan your next lesson, convinced that your ideas as an educator are the Jewish State’s most valuable imports since mazgan and sunblock.
But the lows are, conversely, pretty low. Sometimes Rift-Valley low. Attempts to speak Hebrew with your kids, and maybe even colleagues, might be met with derisive, but not entirely inaccurate imitations of your accent. The relative chaos of the Israeli classroom, commonly attributed to a “different cultural perspective on expression”, can resemble a fast-motion scene from the movie Lean on Me.
A few months ago, 24 year old NorCal native Joel Zylka was at a low point in his ESL teaching experience. An aspiring publisher, with a deep love of English, he came to Israel with visions of poetry and comic book clubs for his middle school students. Unfortunately, the teens and preteens had slightly different priorities, namely listening to the Jonas Brothers and rolling their eyes at figures of authority.
His passion for teaching reignited when he began to work one-on-one with a 33 year old Rehovot resident, who wanted to improve his English in order to attend college and enter Israel’s competitive and elitist high tech sector. The success of these lessons, and the mutual respect that developed between adults working toward a common goal, inspired Joel and his ITF Rehovot co-pilot, Amy Herman, to start what would become a highly successful community education project.
“When we started with the English Club, we were thinking of focusing on just professional English for adults. How to improve your presentation skills, how to write a resume in English, stuff like that. Then we decided that we wanted to make it more fun and inclusive.” That concept was supported by two ITF Israeli Peers, Adi Oksenburg and Tal Luigi, who were instrumental in developing lesson plans, sharing teaching duties, and facilitating clear communication between teacher and student. The “English for adults” idea evolved into the creation of a forum where local Israelis could enjoy a safe, judgement-free environment to practice today’s global lingua franca.
Amy, who plans to get her Master’s in communication management from USC, emphasizes the need for the Club's atmosphere to be inclusive and supportive. “Creating a safe space is so important. At the beginning I chose to speak sometimes in Hebrew. It was a reminder that everyone has something to contribute, and everyone is still vulnerable in some way. We’re all going to make mistakes, and we’re working toward the same goals”
Though Amy had some prior experience in informal education with a variety of age groups, this was Joel’s first foray into adult ed. His relative lack of experience was offset by a knack for cultivating very strong bonds with his student-peers. "We don’t have a traditional teacher-student relationship. That’s my favorite element of this project. Because we address what relates to them, and what they specifically want to learn, we have a deeper connection with them. That’s allowed us to build a community, and a community that I think will continue after we leave.”
As all lesson plans are created in response to suggestions from the students, variety has become a hallmark of the Club. Sometimes they spend an hour talking about complex grammatical concepts, like the use of indefinite articles and the benefits of an Oxford comma. On a lighter day, they might play improv games, which allow the students to develop a greater sense of comfort when speaking English in front of an audience. Amy highlights one particular lesson as a good example of how they use fun interludes among otherwise dense topics. “One day we asked them to retell famous stories, and divided them into two groups to act them out. They both decided on retelling Cinderella as a modern day reality television show. They all dressed up, and everyone participated and had a speaking part. They didn’t let us take pictures or video, but they had so much fun.”
Now it’s back to more serious pursuits, as they prepare for a debate on a daunting subject, the Russian-Ukrainian territorial conflict. This component of the Club was born out of a conversation about differences in styles of expression between Americans and Israelis, and the greater comfort level in Israeli culture with openly discussing politics. Though most Israelis are accustomed to publicly sharing their ideas about divisive issues, they are usually not accustomed to doing so in a second or third language. “I’d say a lot of the students were initially intimidated by the topic”, recalls Joel. “But we provided articles for them in both English and Hebrew, and by the time we finished up the prep session, everyone seemed really excited. It was a really amazing thing to see that transformation, and to see them rise to the challenge.”
Though neither Joel nor Amy plan to work in adult education for their whole lives, they both see a correlation between the English Club and their future professional trajectories. Amy ultimately wants to work to alleviate cultural barriers in an increasingly global business climate. “What I want to take from this experience is the ability to empathize with people in new situations, who might be new to the United States or who might not have perfect English, and to be a bit more tolerant in those situations. I really focus on watching how people communicate, and teaching English and learning Hebrew have shown me how willing people are to meet in the middle in order to connect.”
For Joel, his responsibilities in the English club extend beyond merely teaching, and serve as practical experience for the next phase of his career in the literary arena. “At the beginning of every class, we have 30 minutes of a Writers’ Workshop, where we work with them on resumes and essays, so I’m getting a lot of practical knowledge about how to approach a peer about edits. Adult education is something I’ve become very passionate about, but I think it’s also helpful in my longterm goals within publishing and editing.”
Though the English Club is not what Joel originally expected to be doing in Israel, a little initiative and a lot of patience allowed him to turn disappointment into something (now, is that a universal or assertive existential pronoun?) gratifying.