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May 4, 2018  RSS feed
World News

Text: T T T

St. Pete teacher learns a lot about Israel, her Judaism during 10-month ‘journey’

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

When Heather Hammerling was a student at USF St. Petersburg, studying to be a teacher, she went on a Birthright trip to Israel. It rekindled her interest in Judaism and sparked a desire to return to Israel.

During the Birthright trip she heard of the Masa Israel Journey program, which offers a variety of experiences for American Jews who wish to come to Israel for a longer stay. One of the options is teaching English to Israeli students, so after she graduated in December 2016 and began teaching second grade at Lakeview Fundamental School in St. Petersburg, she applied for the program. Last September, she joined the Masa program and was assigned to teach at a school in Netanya, a city on the Mediterranean coast not far from Tel Aviv. Hammerling, 24, will complete her 10-month stay in Israel soon and plans to return to teach third grade in St. Petersburg.

We asked her to share memories of her experiences in Israel, including the recent ceremonies to remember those who died fighting for Israel and the nation’s celebration of its 70th anniversary. Here are her responses, edited for length:

Tell us what you like about teaching English to Israeli students and what the challenges are?

Teaching English to Israeli students is extremely rewarding, however, as with any job, there are daily challenges, the main thing being the language barrier. … The teaching environment in Israel is much more casual; the students call you by your first name.

I love how excited the students are to learn English. When I first started teaching in September, the students had a much smaller vocabulary and communicating was very difficult. Now, having worked with the students for eight months, I am really getting to see their progress and see them having breakthroughs. I have also learned what their personal interests are and can use them to engage the students in English lessons. My students are very interested in American culture and I have had a lot of fun teaching them about certain holidays and traditions that are specific to the U.S. For example, we did a lesson on Halloween and Thanksgiving and we talk about football and American pop culture.

Tell us about sights and places you have visited in Israel, your interactions with the Israeli people and how life in Israel differs from life in the U.S.

Over the holidays, when we are off from school, I have had the opportunity to travel and explore Israel. This has been a huge highlight of my time here. I have volunteered on a kibbutz, hiked part of the Israel National Trail and have had time to see both the north and south of Israel. … The geography is really amazing, and the weather here makes being outside possible all year long.

I live within walking distance of my school and oftentimes I see my students and their families out and about. … I feel very well taken care of and embraced by the community. I am never alone on Shabbat and have had dinner at the homes of my students, my colleagues and various members of the community. This is very different than in the U.S, where work and personal life are much more compartmentalized.

How has this experience enhanced or changed your views of Judaism?

I was raised Reform [in Montclair, NJ]. However, after my Bat Mitzvah my involvement in Jewish life was almost non-existent. It was not until my Birthright trip that I started to become curious about my Jewish identity and desired to explore it further. This experience has had a positive impact on the development of my Jewish identity. I feel much more connected to Israel and value the Jewish traditions. I have loved celebrating Shabbat every Friday and recognizing the Jewish holidays. I plan to continue these traditions when I return.

Can you tell us about what you felt and heard at the Yom Hazikaron and Israel Independence Day ceremonies?

The ceremonies surrounding Yom Hazikaron and Israel Independence Day were very emotional for me. It was truly heartbreaking to realize that almost anyone you speak to in Israel has lost someone in the armed forces. I have felt very safe while living in Israel, and I know it is due to the young men and women in the armed forces who put their lives at risk every day. However, until it is brought to your attention and you hear the stories, it almost doesn’t feel real. Now that I have this personal connection to Israel, these ceremonies made me feel extremely proud for the nation of Israel and grateful for the opportunities I have here.

What are some of your most treasured experiences from participating in this program and your time spent in Israel?

The ability to live in another country and experience another culture so fully has been my most treasured experience. Israel is such a unique place and I do not think you can really understand how precious it is until you’ve lived here. I love how on Fridays the entire country begins to slow down for Shabbat, and Saturdays are a clear day of rest. The emphasis on spending time with family is really heartwarming. If you go to a park on a Saturday, you will see tons of families sitting outside having picnics and barbeques.

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