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Canadian program helps Israeli students learn English

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A small, grassroots initiative that was started by Ottawan Sarah Gordon to help a friend and fellow teacher in Israel has grown into a major program that’s been sanctioned by Israel’s Ministry of Education.

While studying to be a teacher in Israel a number of years ago, Gordon and her friend recognized the difficulty that many Israeli students – especially those in disadvantaged neighbourhoods – were having with the English language.

As English proficiency examinations represent about one-quarter of the university entry criteria, this poses a significant barrier to students’ ability to pursue a post-secondary education.

Back in Ottawa, Gordon offered to find a local volunteer to chat with two of her friend’s students in Israel, to help them improve their English language skills.

“Those students excelled beyond expectations and it wasn’t long before she was asking for more volunteers. When other teachers heard, they jumped right in, as well,” said Gordon.

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Having seen the impact that the volunteers were having on the students, Gordon decided to expand the informal effort into a serious, concrete program, with the help of the ministry.

“The ministry saw a spike in English proficiency in one school and upon investigation, found our program. They reached out to us,” said Gordon.

Israel Connect, as the program is now known, utilizes video conferencing to facilitate weekly conversations between Israeli teens and North American volunteers, mainly retirees.

In just five years, the program has grown to engage more than 500 Israeli students and more than 400 volunteers.

As a result of the tremendous success of the program, Israel’s Ministry of Education is currently in discussions with Gordon, the executive director of Israel Connect, to expand the program, so that it could eventually reach thousands of Israeli students.

The ministry saw a spike in English proficiency in one school and upon investigation, found our program.
– Sarah Gordon

Roberta Goldmaker is one of the local volunteers who has been involved with the program almost since its inception. A retired financial advisor, Goldmaker had time to devote to the weekly chat and has greatly enjoyed her involvement in the program.

“This experience has been a very positive one for me on many levels. It’s lovely to be able to connect with young people in Israel and know that the lessons we’re reviewing are helping them to read and understand English better than they had when they first began. At the same time, you develop a rapport through conversation and discussion. Bottom line: it’s all good,” she said.

While all of the volunteers used to be from the Ottawa area, that is no longer the case.

“We now have hundreds that connect weekly,” said Gordon. “They are from all across North America. We mostly work with communities, congregations, federations, Chabad, etc.”

As far as choosing which students and schools in Israel will participate, Gordon said that, “We’re proud to work hand-in-hand with Israel’s Ministry of Education. Together, we identify schools that are most in need of support, so that we can direct our efforts and resources toward helping some of Israel’s most disadvantaged students succeed far beyond their own expectations.”

To learn more about the program, and for information on becoming a volunteer, visit Israel Connect’s website.