Sara Barahan, a former Israel Connect student, continues to meet with her mentor from the program, and has started helping others improve their English, too. (photo from Chabad Richmond)
Israel Connect pairs a mentor with an Israeli teen student who is wanting to improve their English reading, vocabulary and language skills. Mentors dedicate time every week to a video meeting with their student, using Israel Connect’s “Tour of Israel” curriculum. The goal is that, by the end of the school year, students have the skills and confidence they need to succeed in Israel’s national university entrance exam.
I have been blessed with the opportunity of being part of the Israel Connect program as a volunteer tutor/mentor. Having done this for a few years, I’m keenly aware of the benefits for both students and tutors.
A year-and-a-half ago, I was matched up with Sara Barahan, 23, who is older than the average student we work with and is in college. When we were first matched up, she was in her first year, studying to be an English and special needs teacher. It was pure joy from the moment we met. Her enthusiasm, motivation and single-minded pursuit for learning English was palpable, and her commitment and memory extraordinary.
We were tutor and student for a full school year and, once it finished, Sara asked if we could continue to meet via WhatsApp video, independently, and, of course, I agreed. I think I enjoy our meetings even more than Sara does! Even though I have a new Israel Connect student I tutor once a week, Sara and I continue to talk weekly, often for an hour or more. I’ve met many of her family members, virtually, and we’ve shared a lot about our lives in our many conversations.
For one of her college assignments, Sara was asked to write about the people and things that have influenced her on her journey to learn English. This is what she wrote:
“The Israel Connect Program was sponsored by Chabad. This program involves senior volunteer tutors from all over North America, who are fluent English-speakers, connect online, one-on-one via Zoom, for 30 minutes once a week with Israeli high school students who want to improve their English conversation and reading skills. The organizers know that good English skills will give Israeli students an advantage in accessing post-secondary education, and getting better jobs.
“English proficiency is crucial to Israeli students, since it makes up a third of their entrance exam marks for university. Students and tutors make great connections and it often goes beyond simply tutoring the curriculum, and turns into friendship. The program is something concrete and meaningful that helps Israeli students improve their lives. Building relationships is a highly satisfying and core part of this program, for both the students and the tutors.
“I joined the Israel Connect Program when I was in my first year in college,” said Barahan. “The lecturer offered this program (although it was meant to be for teenagers) and I saw it as an opportunity to improve my English, so I decided to participate in it. And this is how I got to know my tutor, Shelley from Vancouver, Canada, who until today is still in touch with me.
“This program is very important and meaningful to me because it is through this program that I got to meet the person who has influenced me, and a person that I enjoy talking to about different topics. This relationship has become very close and it’s not just a virtual meeting about a set curriculum; our conversations are about topics far beyond the studies. Thanks to the Israel Connect program I have gotten the chance to practise my English speaking, reading, writing and listening skills and expand my vocabulary.”
What greater accolade could Israel Connect get than this firsthand testimonial from a graduate of the program? I use the word graduate because Sara participated as an older student and has continued with her English studies.
Sara and I are fast friends, despite our 41-year age difference. We talk about school, her social life, our families, her aspirations, her frustrations, and everything in between. She confides in me and we have become very close. I would say that Sara seems like a daughter to me, except for the fact that I’m old enough to be her safta (grandmother). The age disparity isn’t an issue though; in fact, I like to think that she sees me as a kind of hip grandmother.
Sara often asks for my help proofreading her essays for school, and I love helping her learn. I see remarkable progress in her English language fluency and conversation skills. She says that I’m the only person she can speak English with, and really appreciates practising with me. What better way to learn a language than to converse at length about all sorts of topics? And Sara has gone on to tutor English to her neighbour’s 9-year-old daughter. Now, if that’s not a success story, I don’t know what is!
Other Israel Connect mentors have also expressed how gratifying it is to help these young Israeli students, and most mentors say that they’re certain they enjoy the experience at least as much as their students. They’ve described the mentoring experience as refreshing, fun, fulfilling and, at times, challenging – but always rewarding. Their students all sincerely appreciate the chance to practise their English conversation, vocabulary and reading skills with someone who is friendly and nonjudgmental. Some kids said they are embarrassed to try speaking English in class, or in front of their family, so the Israel Connect program gives them the confidence to speak. More importantly, it gives them the incentive to continue learning English, which they know will help them as they enter university and seek out good jobs.
Israel Connect always welcomes new volunteer mentors. For more information about the program and how to volunteer, go to tinyurl.com/yd6y4jrq.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer. She wrote this article for Chabad Richmond.