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Meeting a teaching challenge

Jewish Americans spend 10 months in Israel’s toughest schools

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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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‘It’s valuable to hear both sides’

Ridgewood man discusses Israeli, Palestinian narratives

Jonathan Emont — a 2008 graduate of Ridgewood High School who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center — always has felt a deep attachment to the state of Israel.

Still, the 23-year-old said, he never expected that country to be at the center of his professional life.

Things changed, however, when the recent Swarthmore College graduate went to Israel on a tour the America-Israel Friendship League offered to young journalists.

“I did journalism in college,” he said, explaining that although he majored in history, he also was the editor of Swarthmore’s Daily Gazette.


Walling off, reaching out

Teaneck shul offers discussion of Women of the Wall

It is not an understatement to say that the saga of Women of the Wall is a metaphor for much of the struggle between tradition and change in Israel.

Founded 25 years ago by a group of Israeli and non-Israeli women whose religious affiliations ran from Orthodox to Reform, it has been a flashpoint for the fight for pluralism in Israel, as one side would define it, or the obligation to hold onto God-given mandates on the other.

As its members and supporters fought for the right to hold services in the women’s section, raising their voices in prayer, and later to wear tallitot and read from sifrei Torah, and as their opponents grew increasingly violent in response, it came to define questions of synagogue versus state and showcase both the strengths and the flaws of Israel’s extraordinary parliamentary system. It also highlighted rifts between American and Israeli Jews.


Yet more Pew

Local rabbis talk more about implications of look at American Jews

The Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, released last October, really is the gift that keeps on giving.

As much as the Jewish community deplores the study’s findings, it seems to exert a magnetic pull over us, as if it were the moon and we the obedient tides. We can’t seem to stop talking about it. (Of course, part of that appeal is the license it gives us to talk, once again, about ourselves. We fascinate ourselves endlessly.)

That is why we found ourselves at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last Wednesday night, with the next in the seemingly endless series of snow-and-ice storms just a few hours away, discussing the Pew study yet again.



Israel launching drive to void Goldstone Report

WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would launch an international campaign to cancel the Goldstone Report after its author, ex-South African Judge Richard Goldstone, wrote in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post that Israel did not intentionally target civilians as a policy during the Gaza War, withdrawing a critical allegation in the report.

Netanyahu said he had asked his security adviser, Ya’akov Amidror, to establish a committee focused on “minimizing the damage caused” by the report.


Facebook and Zuckerberg does an about-face and deletes Palestinian page calling for a Third Intifada

Following widespread criticism, a Facebook page calling for a third Palestinian intifada against Israel was removed on March 29. On the Facebook page, Palestinians were urged to launch street protests following Friday May 15 and begin an uprising as modelled by similar uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan. Killing Jews en masse was emphasized.

According to the Facebook page, “Judgment Day will be brought upon us only once the Muslims have killed all of the Jews.” The page had more than 340,000 fans. However, even while the page was removed, a new page now exists in its place with the same name,  “Third Palestinian Intifada.”


Did heated rhetoric play role in shooting of Giffords?

WASHINGTON – The 8th District in southern Arizona represented by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords comprises liberal Tucson and its rural hinterlands, which means moderation is a must. But it also means that spirits and tensions run high.

Giffords’ office in Tucson was ransacked in March following her vote for health care reform — a vote the Democrat told reporters that she would cast even if it meant her career. She refused to be cowed, but she also took aim at the hyped rhetoric. She cast the back-and-forth as part of the democratic process.

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