What I Learned by Teaching Hebrew to Asylum Seekers in Israel
When my friend Heidi Gleit asked last summer for volunteers to teach a weekly Hebrew reading-and-writing evening class to Eritrean and Darfurian asylum seekers in the Israeli town of Lod, I agreed immediately. There were only three difficulties: First, I have never taught a class in anything, let alone the ancient Hebraic tongue, as my husband Larry affectionately calls it. Second, my own Hebrew isn’t exactly perfect. Third, driving on the highway at night scares me, and the round-trip drive from my hometown of Modiin to Lod and back takes almost an hour in total.
But I stuck with my resolution, and taught Hebrew reading and writing to a class of asylum seekers for just over three months. Most of the students had journeyed to Israel between the mid-2000s and 2013—fleeing genocide in Darfur or forced military service in Eritrea—and had crossed over the Sinai border into Israel until a barrier was built to keep them out. Most could speak some Hebrew in addition to their native languages of Tigrinya or Arabic, but they could not read or write Hebrew. And they were keen to improve their language skills, despite the significant challenge of showing up for an evening class after long days working low-wage jobs.
I set out with high hopes: This is my chance, I thought, to channel Miss Wiesenberg, my Classical Hebrew teacher at Hasmonean High School for Girls in London, who taught us all the essential elements of Hebrew grammar, including the seven “binyanim,” the seven “buildings”—named Pa’al, Pi’el, Hiph’il, Hitpa’el, Pu’al, Huph’al and Niph’al—by which Hebrew verbs are conjugated. It rapidly became clear to me that my aspirations were over-inflated. But it’s also true that I learned many lessons along the way, not just about my own abilities as a novice teacher, but about the obstacles that asylum seekers in Israel must overcome in their daily lives.
I did, in fact, teach the present tense of some simple verbs to my students, along with selected excerpts of Captain Underpants (the Hebrew version), the Ethics of the Fathers, and how to wish someone Merry Christmas in Hebrew.
The class began in September 2018, when a local teacher on maternity leave began teaching the class both versions of the Hebrew alphabet, standard printing and handwritten script. I replaced her in early November, when she returned to work. But as the date for my first class drew closer and closer, my dread and anxiety grew. I began to regret my instant assent, even though I was familiar with the community: I had spent the spring of 2018, along with a group of volunteers, helping Eritrean asylum seekers in Lod apply for refugee status in Israel. I had also invited two Eritrean families to my house last spring for a symbolic Passover seder.
I knew the statistics: An estimated 35,659 asylum seekers in Israel (92 percent of whom are from Eritrea or Sudan) live in vulnerable conditions, dealing with the intermittent threat of expulsion (in late 2017, Israel’s Knesset voted to deport African asylum seekers, and in 2018, the government attempted to expel a small group of 400 Congolese refugees); ongoing racism; lack of social services (unless their lives are literally in danger); and the docking of their already-low salaries by 20 percent. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or medical ailments after being kidnapped and tortured by Bedouin on their journey through the Sinai desert.
This knowledge fueled my determination to help asylum seekers in Israel, as did my own experience as the daughter of a refugee: My father Gershon Glausiusz fled postwar anti-Semitism in Hungary after surviving the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. So, resolute but quaking inwardly, I drove to Lod for my first class in early November, armed with sheaves of verb tables and a laptop.
About ten students showed up that first night, all men. (According to the Eritrean Women’s Community Center in Tel Aviv, there are 7,000 Eritrean women refugees in Israel; I met a few of the women in Lod, and although they expressed interest, they told me that they could not attend the class, as they had small children to care for.) I opened my first class by asking the students’ names, and introducing myself and my background as the daughter of a refugee. I played them the well-known Arik Einstein song, “Ani ve-ata, neshane et ha-olam,” (“you and I, we will change the world”). On the whiteboard, I wrote out the tables for the verb, le-shanot, “to change,” showing the different ways the verb can be conjugated, past, present and future. I explained how each Hebrew verb has a three-letter-root, and listed words that can be made from the verb le’-shanot, such as the noun shinui, “change,” and the adjective shoneh, “different.”
I asked the students to write sentences using the verb le’shanot. One of them wrote, ani rotzeh le-shanot et ha’leom sheli—“I want to change my nationality.”
For my second class, I took a step back, or several giant steps. It quickly became clear to me that while many of the students knew the basic Hebrew alphabet, they consistently mixed up letters that sound the same or similar in Hebrew, but are used differently in different words. For example, they used the letter aleph (the equivalent of the English letter “A”) instead of heh (the English “H”) because Israelis, both children and adults, pronounce the letter heh as aleph. They mixed up tet and taf both of which sound like the English letter “T.” They confused the Hebrew letters samech and sin, both of which sound like the English letter “S,” but the Hebrew letter sin can also be pronounced “shin” or “sh” depending on whether an upper dot appears on the left or the right. Most Hebrew is printed without the addition of these punctuating dots, making it even more bewildering for the fledgling reader.
So I made lists of words beginning with these perplexing letters, photocopying the lists and distributing them as handouts, and then I asked the students to write sentences including these letters. I copied the sentences onto the whiteboard and praised the students for their efforts, while also correcting their errors. Once, a student used a word I didn’t know—s’nai or “squirrel”—and the following week I pasted an excerpt of the Ethics of the Fathers on the board: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone,” alongside with a picture of a squirrel. The student who had taught me the Hebrew word for “squirrel” smiled when I confessed I hadn’t known the word.
I also learned how to respond to the students’ spontaneous questions, including a request to learn how to say different family members in Hebrew. I wrote the Hebrew words on the whiteboard : ima, abba, dod, doda, saba, savta, ben, bat, “mother, father, uncle, aunt, grandpa, grandma, son, daughter.” I learned that Sudan, there are more than one hundred indigenous languages, and that people have a “street language” (Arabic) and a mother tongue they speak at home; the Darfurian language is “Fur.”
On New Year’s Eve and on Orthodox Christmas in early January, I distributed lists of festive Hebrew phrases: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, warm wishes, festive meal, Bethlehem—a town that some of the Orthodox Christian Eritrean students had visited to celebrate the holiday. I taught the verbs that derive from the name of Christmas in Hebrew, Chag Ha-Molad (“the festival of the birth”): le-hivaled (“to be born”) and laledet (“to give birth)” as well as the word for “homeland” (moledet). The students shared their own memories of their homelands, or about parents they had left behind, or siblings who had found refuge in countries far away, and the distances they had traveled across land and sea to reach these countries of refuge.
Some weeks we read, together and out loud, newspaper stories in Hebrew specifically about the denial of refugee rights in Israel, including an article in Haaretz about the lack of funds for welfare services for asylum seekers, unless their lives are threatened, and another imparting important news: that Israel plans to re-examine 1500 asylum requests from Darfurians after their original interviews were deemed “not in-depth enough.” I simultaneously transliterated some of the more complicated Hebrew phrases into simpler Hebrew words, learning some new words myself, such as aflaya, “discrimination.” We also read a simple online version of the daily news in Hebrew.
Perhaps one of the best classes was the one in which I taught three students to conjugate the different forms of the verb “to thank” (le-hodot). To my delight, one student wrote me a note: toda morah shelanu—“thank you, our teacher”—the first time in my life that I have been called teacher.
I had not set a limit to the term of the class; I assumed I would continue teaching as long as the students showed up. I was somewhat discouraged, therefore, when the class size shrank to just two or three regulars. One night, during a heavy rainstorm, no one appeared at all, and I drove home through the crashing rain, the highway barely visible in front of me, praying out loud that I would reach my children safely. (I can say that my driving confidence did increase.)
I tried to understand the challenges that kept students away. One student said that the pace of the class was too fast; another admitted that he had missed the earlier classes, where the alphabet was taught, and was now too far behind. Many had work obligations on the night of the class. I asked Heidi, who had coordinated the project, if she had any insights. After speaking to some of the students privately, she wrote to me via Whatsapp that “the problem is the external circumstances of daily life.” The most difficult thing, the students said, “is not having control over your work hours. If you work at a small shop or a supermarket and it suddenly becomes busy just as your shift was scheduled to end, you generally are expected to stay late with no warning or consideration for other stuff in your life and after ten to twelve hours of physical work, all you want to do is go home and collapse. Even if there is something else you want to do and know is good for you, sometimes it can be overwhelmingly difficult to do that.”
So, with some regret, the class came to an end in late January 2019. I was a little sad, but when I look back, I realize that I now understood the reason why the root of the verb to teach (le-lamed) and to learn (lilmod) is the same: I had both taught the students and learned about their lives and my own abilities. I had also helped students with issues with which they had approached me, often at the very end of the class—a bureaucratic hurdle, a medical problem, a desire to register for university and study—usually by putting them in touch with the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Israel.
I hope that my determination to teach the students will have a long-term impact, even if I can’t see it now. “I feel like every little thing we do for other people makes a difference—and you did something huge!” Heidi wrote to me after the class ended. “One thing I’ve learned from trying to help asylum seekers is that things don’t always work out as I had expected or hoped, but something good often comes out of it later in a way I didn’t expect.” So I have faith that the asylum seeker community in Lod will continue to know that I, and other Israelis like me, support them in their struggle for basic human rights, respect and acceptance.
I also believe that the late Miss Wiesenberg would be quite proud of me.