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Masa-ing English in Israel

Local grads teach and learn from their enthusiastic students

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Benjamin Winik is flanked by two of his students, left. Molly Winik at the base of Masada. That’s an ibex behind her. Michael Winik Perrin Bernard at the Ramle market.

When Benjamin Winik of Haworth finished his bachelor’s degree in political science at McGill University in Montreal, he considered teaching English in France for a year. Then he received an email from Taglit-Birthright Israel — he’d participated in a free Birthright tour of Israel in 2010 — informing him of the possibility of teaching English in Israel through Masa Israel Teaching Fellows.

“I liked how the program in Israel sounded; they give you a lot more support,” said Mr. Winik, now 24. “Moving to a foreign country is never easy, so you need that support system.”

His experience teaching fourth- to sixth-graders in Rishon LeZion in 2012 to 2013 made him so fond of living in Israel that he opted to study for a master’s in political science at Tel Aviv University the following year. He now lives in Washington, D.C., but his 22-year-old sister, Molly, has followed in his footsteps as a teaching fellow in the same Israeli school where he taught.

Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a joint initiative of Israel’s Ministry of Education, Masa Israel Journey, and the Jewish Agency for Israel, is a 10-month service-learning fellowship now in its fourth year. Fellows work as teachers’ aides in underserved and overcrowded classrooms, aiming to improve English learning outcomes for Israeli pupils. Applications for the 2015-2016 school year are due on December 15. (To apply, go to

Since its inaugural session in 2011-2012, 535 Jewish young adults from the United States, Canada, England, and Australia have become Masa Israel Teaching Fellows. The program serves schools in Ashdod, Be’er Sheva, Netanya, Petach Tikvah, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, Ramle, and Lod. Next year, it will expand to include some Israeli youth villages for immigrant and at-risk youth.

The benefits of the program go both ways, Mr. Winik said. “I really developed a strong connection with Israel and Israelis. My family is not that religious, so it was nice to go to where everyone was Jewish and you have all the Jewish holidays off. You’re just surrounded by a Jewish community.”

Mr. Winik is not a professional teacher. He and the other fellows in his cohort went through an intensive 10 days of training at Talpiot College of Education in nearby Holon before starting their assignments, and met once a month there throughout the year.

“You’re partnered with someone from your program at each school, so it makes things a lot easier,” he said. “You have a host teacher to help you with questions and lesson planning, and a pedagogic adviser affiliated with Talpiot College.

“I think the children were excited to come and learn English, which is very important nowadays. English-speakers don’t realize how difficult a language it is to learn.”

English-language instruction in Israel starts in third grade, but it’s not always effective. Israeli classrooms can be “hectic and crowded,” as Mr. Winik put it, and only about a quarter of English teachers are native English-speakers.

“We would take smaller pullout groups, anywhere from four to 12 children, and that made our jobs easier in terms of classroom management,” he said. “You just had to be flexible and adaptable, because things never really go according to plan and every day is different. If you don’t have these qualities going in, the program is great for helping you develop them.”

His sister Molly blogs about her experiences in Rishon LeZion at In one post, she shared a photo of a note given to her by a fifth-grade boy, inscribed “mali you butifal — Noor” and decorated with a bunch of hearts.

She and her co-teacher recently asked each of their fifth-graders to create a poster showing his or her favorite color, book, food, video game, and so on. “I paired up with two boys in the class to help them with their posters. Both were fairly weak so the class consisted of them drawing pictures of things they liked.” TV, iPhone, XBox, and soccer were most popular. “I would then help them spell the sentences, ‘I like… .’ It was cool because towards the end of the period the boys stopped looking at the board to see how to spell ‘I like’ and instead could do it from memory. Even though it’s a simple sentence I took it as a victory.”

Like her brother, Ms. Winik has decided to remain in Israel next year to pursue a master’s degree in political science and political communication from Tel Aviv University, which has an international program for English-speakers.

“I want to stay because I really love the people and the culture here — and obviously the food,” she said. “It’s a hard choice because I do miss my family and my English bulldog, Bubba, but I’m really happy here and feel independent for one of the first times in my life.”

Perrin Bernard of Teaneck, 23, was a Masa Israel teaching fellow during the 2013-2014 school year, following her graduation from Bates College in Maine. She lived in Ramle with other fellows and taught in nearby Lod, the ethnically diverse working-class city where Ben-Gurion International Airport is located.

“I was an education minor and I thought maybe I’d like teaching, and this would be a fun way to travel and figure out if this is what I wanted to continue doing,” said Ms. Bernard, who describes herself as “secular to Reform, depending on what country I’m in.”

She had thought about applying for Birthright, but when she came across Masa Israel Teaching Fellows online, she decided that teaching abroad would provide a better introduction to Israel. She said that of the 12 fellows in her group, only two had not been on Birthright.

“Ramle was a really cool place to be because it’s a peek into all of Israel,” she said. “You have Jews and Muslims, Christian Arabs, Ethiopians, Russians; the whole pot of people. It exposed me to everything, the good and the bad, and an array of cultures.”

In addition to her public school assignment, she sometimes tutored high school students and helped run adult English classes.

“The experience broadened my horizons. I met some of the most wonderful people and others I would not want to be friends with,” she reported.

Her knowledge of Hebrew was limited to the alphabet learned long ago in Sunday school, but Masa provides an ulpan (Hebrew conversation class) to teaching fellows twice a week, and she learned to carry on basic conversations.

She is left with “a fondness toward Israel” but no interest in staying on, as some of her peers did. “It’s a wonderful and unique place in the world. I have a deep respect for it but a deep confusion at the same time,” she said.

Mr. Winik says he’d tell anyone considering the program to go ahead and apply. “You should definitely do it; step outside your comfort zone and get more connected with Israel and Israelis,” he said. “Only in your 20s can you put everything on hold and take advantage of an opportunity like this.”

For more information, call Allison Green at Masa Israel Journey at (212) 339-6976 or email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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