Culture, Global, Identity, Israel, Mishegas, Politics, Religion

Kari Hochwald: "Living in Israel on this program allowed me to view it on my own terms, on my own time, and everything that I experienced could only be done from living there."

Israel Teaching FellowsKari Hochwald is 23 years old  and from Jacksonville, Florida. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2012 with a degree in English. She spent the past year volunteering in Israel through Masa’s Israel Teaching Fellows program in Rehovot. After a few months back at home, Kari has decided to return to Israel to live and work in Tel Aviv.
Jewschool: Say some things about your Jewish background and your previous experience(s) in Israel.
Kari Hochwald: My Jewish background is.. Conservaform? I guess? ( My family switched from a Conservative to Reform temple when I was 11). I really only stayed involved up through my Bat Mitzvah and a couple of years of volunteering at the temple. I was very uninvolved in high school and didn’t really find a Jewish outlet until the end of my Junior year in college when I went on a Taglit Birthright trip with the University of Florida Hillel, visiting Israel for the first time. Jacksonville doesn’t have a huge thriving Jewish community so I never had that many Jewish friends, and it’s hard to get involved on the college level when you don’t know many people at Hillel/Chabad (it’s a bit clique-y). Now my Judaism is more Israel centered and I would identify more with the “secular” movement. I was very involved with Hillel during my senior year of college, as a Masa intern and Zionist Gators group founder.
My experience in Israel this year was, of course, amazing, and so different from what you think you are seeing on Birthright. I felt a connection to Israel during that brief ten days,  but being able to live there for ten months and attempt to understand the language, culture, controversies, and diverse land were things I could never have experienced otherwise. The highlight was partaking in all of the Jewish holidays in Israel, when no one questioned why I was missing class on Yom Kippur, and Chanukah was the main December event. My Hebrew didn’t improve immensely, but from teaching in a middle school I had a much better understanding of English grammar (ever heard of stative verbs?).
JS: Why Israel Teaching Fellows?
KH: This program pretty much gave me everything I was looking for in an experience abroad. Israel Teaching Fellows was highly subsidized, extremely group oriented, and it was one of the few teaching English abroad programs that didn’t require intermediate experience in the country’s language — it didn’t even require any Hebrew knowledge!

The program was supplemented with weekly training sessions, Ulpan classes, and multiple field trips throughout the country. We only worked about 25 hours a week as teaching assistants, which gave us plenty of time to explore Israel on our own. The city I lived in, Rehovot, was unique in that our program offered Israeli counterparts who taught in the classrooms with us. Masa gives its participants access to amazing events and leadership seminars (not to mention a few free gifts!). Although I was over 6,000 miles away from home, I felt a strong safety net while doing this program, and even though it could be difficult at times, it was well worth it. I hiked for the first time in my life, built a sukkah in Jerusalem, helped make a Thanksgiving dinner for 40 people, attended a religious wedding, slept in the desert, learned how to live in a four bedroom apartment with eight other roommates, somehow convinced middle schoolers to perform songs onstage for their peers on English Day at school, and I traveled to five other countries while in Israel, just to name a few things. The year was filled with so many opportunities for new experiences, I’m not sure how we fit them in to merely ten months.


JS: Talk about the city and the community/school where you taught-demographics, economics, etc.

KH: Israel Teaching Fellows is meant to teach in schools in the periphery of Israel, but I’m not sure how well Rehovot fits into that category. The 27 participants in my city volunteered in pairs or triples in 12 different schools.
The few that I was able to visit, along with the school I volunteered at, all seemed to vary in their amenities. Two volunteers taught in the poorest part of Rehovot with students who came from difficult backgrounds, yet they also had the most access to supplies and technology at their school. I was at a middle school, unlike most participants, and we were lucky if we could manage to print a few sheets of paper, but generally relied on the couple of packets of construction paper and markers we were given. At other schools their printing allotment was unlimited, some had private English rooms to teach in, and some even had animals! It’s hard to give a general idea with such variations. However, from my experience at the school I volunteered in, most students were from middle class families, and practically all of them had iPhones. There were students who were less well off, but they were not the majority. From what I gathered, it equated to your average American middle school (in regard to economics/demographics, but definitely not behaviorally!!)
There were only a small population of students of Ethiopian descent at my school, and there were also some recent immigrants from Russia. Rehovot is a very suburban town, but because it has two colleges in it (The Faculty of Agriculture and The Weizmann Institute) there is a still a night life and student culture.

JS:  Did you feel prepared for the experience? One of the many critiques folks have of Teach for America is feeling like they’re thrown into a high stakes situation with no support.

KH: On one hand I felt prepared for this experience because of my background as an English major and experience working with children. (We also received training throughout the year at a college nearby, and though it wasn’t always helpful, it improved over time.) On the other hand, I was completely unprepared for the cultural difference in the way schools are run in Israel, with sporadic changes and minimal classroom order.

This was only the second year of the program and I think there was still a big gap between what Masa understood as the role of participants at the schools and what teachers expected and wanted us to do. For a while many teachers did not understand that we were not, in fact, teachers ourselves, but only “teaching assistants,” meant to work with small groups of students outside of the classroom. Sometimes they just didn’t know what to do with us, especially on days that required frontal lesson teaching. In between multiple Jewish holidays and standardized testing, the schedule was all over the place and at times we wouldn’t see one of our classes for weeks.

So it wasn’t an issue of being thrown into a situation that exceeded our skill set, but just communication errors and trying to work out the kinks of a program that was only in its second year (and in my city the number of participants had gone from 7 the first year to 27  for the second!) We definitely had support though — maybe too much of it. There was our group facilitator, our teachers (mine were extremely supportive and always tried to give us as much freedom in our volunteering as possible), our pedagogical coordinator, and many other Masa representatives.
Because we are not the sole educators of the classroom as a part of this program, it requires the teachers to do a lot of work beforehand in creating weekly schedules of students we should work with and lesson plans for that time. Each school had its own difficulties, and we never had such concrete scheduling. Working with two other volunteers, I never felt alone at school and always had someone to rely on when things weren’t working out. Knowing Hebrew would have made some communication easier and allowed us to better integrate into the school, but because our Hebrew was limited it also forced the students to work harder on their English; they wanted to talk to us. Being a participant for the second year of ITF was important to me because I knew that with it being so new many of the technical aspects would still need to be worked out and I wanted to be a part of the improvement process. I can say that by the end of the year we clearly identified what was working and what wasn’t, and I have high hopes for this year’s participants!
JS: Did this  experience changed your view of Israel?
KH: Living in Israel for ten months affected my views of it in many ways. We happened to be there during a very strange year — there was a brief ‘war,’ the most rain Israel has received in a decade, snow in Jerusalem, and an Israel and American election.

I felt like my brain was always switched on, and by that I mean that there was constant talking, debating, and discussing some controversial topic. The Chief Rabbinate, West Bank Settlements, the relationship between Israeil and American Jewry, politics, Kosher/Shabbat laws, etc.

Being a part of these discussions helped me to better understand Israel as well as my Jewish identity, though it’s still very complicated! What I was most exposed to by living in Israel were its internal struggles that are not as critiqued or discussed when it comes to Israel advocacy work in America (economy, undocumented immigrants). I never had a drastic change in my views, but living within it allowed me to see just how many shades there are on the gradient of Israel and I saw myself shifting in certain areas.

Birthright tends to be known for giving participants an overly positive, and somewhat cheesy, view of Israel. The international media gives very strong critiques of Israel and makes it seem like the most dangerous of places (just ask my parents). Living in Israel on this program allowed me to view it on my own terms, on my own time, and everything that I experienced could only be done from living there, as a part of the Rehovot community, for a ten month span. Of course, being a Masa participant is not a far stretch from going on Birthright. That is why I have decided to return to Israel to live and work in Tel Aviv and continue to learn and understand the country — and eat some more hummus and falafel.

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