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Federations in the Negev: Teaching in Israel's Remote Regions

By Mariel Honigman
JFNA Israel

March, 2011

Utilizing the potential of the Negev is an important part of Israel’s development.  The Negev region constitutes 66% of Israel’s landmass, yet contains only 15% of its population.  The Jewish Federations of North America and its Negev Work Group has been heavily involved in development in the Negev through various programs. The OTZMA Israel Teaching Corps (ITC), launched two years ago, is a Federation supported initiative that brings English teachers to remote areas, while encouraging young American Jews to connect with the region.

ITC is the result of a joint effort between seven Jewish federations, who wanted to connect their own youth with young people in their Partnership 2000 regions. The federations involved are the Jewish Federations of Delaware and  Central New Jersey, with their partnership city Arad; the Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, with its partnership city Ashkelon; the Greater Miami Jewish Federation with its partnership city Yerucham, and the Jewish Federations of Greater Seattle, Greater Phoenix, and Southern Arizona, with their partnership city Kiryat Malachi.

OTZMA’s mission is to bring diaspora Jews to Israel for a ten month immersive program.  Federations from across North America recruit young Jewish adults with motivation, commitment and initiative for a service-oriented year in Israel.  Once in the country, they explore the diverse geography, culture and politics of the Jewish state.  While the program has long acted as a way for participants to provide a service to Israel, there has been a growing need for volunteers in more isolated regions.  Specifically, English teachers were in high demand in small Negev communities, and OTZMA created a program to help tackle this problem.

ITC Participants play an active role in their placement communities, as English tutors to Israeli students from across the spectrum.  “Because this program targets a specific issue in Israeli society, we only accept very strong and unique people possessing a special character,” said Dganit Jenshil, the OTZMA Israel Director. “They need to have a rich background of studying and volunteering.” In a joint effort to make the program more affordable, OTZMA has paired up with Jewish community Federations to sponsor participants, and to greatly subsidize the program’s cost. “It has been overwhelming how Federations have supported and embraced this idea.” 

Arielle Waite, a 24 year old from Marlton, NJ, sponsored by the South Jersey Federation,  works in the Negev town of Arad with two different elementary classes from Kindergarten to 6th grade.   She also performs one-on-one tutoring and special events classes for 6-8 children at a time.  Arielle spends most afternoons with students who have learning disabilities.  The children she works with hail from many different sections of society and parts of town.  While her focus is to help students who need extra attention and afterschool tutoring, she also works with students who are advanced English speakers who simply wish to be (more) stimulated.  Arielle describes Arad as being “comprised of a lot of young families,” who need the help of people like ITC participants. 

Lauren Hyman, another OTZMA ITC participant, is a 23 year old from Lawrenceville, GA.  She is sponsored by the Atlanta Federation, but also works with the Miami Federation in the Negev town of Yerucham.  The Miami Federation works specifically with JAFI’s “Youth Futures” program which takes at-risk youth and helps them in school and with afterschool activities.  Working with both a secular high school and a girl’s religious school allows Lauren to see a wide array of Jewish identity within Israel.  Originally from Georgia, she was raised with a strong sense of Jewish identity.  However, Lauren lost that tradition once she moved away from Atlanta.  Through OTZMA in Israel, she was able to find her sense of Jewish identity and now wants to hold onto these rediscovered traditions.  Along with a stronger connection to her Judaism, she describes that “living in a small town on the periphery (of Israeli society) gives you a good sense of the real life, good and bad.  It’s not a birthright program.  It gives you a taste of the real thing.”   

Over the past two years, the OTZMA Israel Teaching Corps has been an instrumental program in educating Jews in Israel and enabling North American Jewish young adults to experience the Negev region and help address its growing social needs.  The Jewish Federations of North America’s OTZMA program has played a pivotal role in supporting ITC’s mission and has inspired North American youth to engage with Israeli society and to learn more about Israel.

To learn more about the Jewish Federation’s involvement in this program, and others like it, please visit our Negev Hub.

Lauren Hyman (Atlanta) teaches English at the ORT Sapir school in Yerucham.

Sarah Adler (Howard County) gives one on one English lessons at Emunah in Ashkelon