Keren Hovav (right) and Naomi Lieberman, participants in the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program, teach English in a Rehovot elementary school.
Keren Hovav (right) and Naomi Lieberman, participants in the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program, teach English in a Rehovot elementary school.

This young Bay Area woman found purpose among poor Israeli school children

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Kiryat Moshe, a blighted neighborhood of cracked windows and missing doors in the Israeli city of Rehovot, seemed an unlikely place to have a life-changing experience. But that’s where Sunnyvale native Keren Hovav got energized and found purpose.

Hovav, 23, went to Kiryat Moshe as part of the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program. In the small neighborhood of mainly Ethiopian immigrants, she came to understand her importance as an educator and a volunteer.

“It was an incredible experience and I loved every minute of it,” Hovav said via Skype from her current home in Tel Aviv. “I now teach English to adult refugees [as a volunteer] and I couldn’t have done it without the [Masa] program.”

Run in collaboration with Israel’s Ministry of Education and the Jewish Agency for Israel, Masa’s teaching fellows program is for people ages 21 to 30 who are looking for professional work experience with a big dose of Jewish heritage thrown in. Masa officials realize the program can be daunting for young adults who probably have never worked overseas.

“All we ask of the fellows is that they begin this experience with opens mind and hearts — and to be prepared to learn just as much from the Israeli students and teachers as they will teach them,” said Tamar Zilbershatz, Masa Israel Journey’s director of gap and service programs.

Since its founding in 2011, the teaching fellows program has placed more than 650 college graduates into English-teaching programs in 16 cities across Israel; nearly 250 are enrolled for the 2017-18 school year. Training includes pedagogical education and lessons in Hebrew.

The 10-month program provided Hovav a small monthly stipend, and she lived in a middle-class Rehovot neighborhood, commuting each day to Kiryat Moshe, a neighborhood plagued by poverty, high crime and unemployment. Her students were mainly elementary school children of Ethiopian and Yemenite descent.

“Many students were coming from a place of hurt,” she said, explaining that the dire economic conditions forced parents worked long hours, leaving older kids home alone to care for their siblings. “It was challenging, but the best kind of challenge.”

I now teach English to adult refugees, and I couldn’t have done it without the [Masa] program.

Hovav, whose family moved from Israel to the Bay Area when she was a young girl, attended Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto and went on to earn a degree in education from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. She also spent time as a counselor at Camp Tawonga near Yosemite.

In Kiryat Moshe, Hovav organized a group of kids to put on a play of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” but mainly she worked one-on-one with students. One of them, a sixth-grader who was struggling with some behavioral issues, eventually earned 95 percent on an English test after some personal time with Hovav.

“She was afraid of failing, but I didn’t give up on her,” Hovav recalled. “Eventually she started to believe in herself and wanted to do advanced lessons.”

And then there was the fourth-grader who thought of only of becoming a professional soccer player. When he showed little motivation to learn English, Hovav helped spark his interest by teaching him soccer terms in English.

“He didn’t understand why he needed to learn English,” she said. “I took him seriously and told him that he would need English to give interviews” after he scores the winning goal.

Through Masa, Hovav completed her teaching credential at the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv, and now she is training to become a trip leader on future Birthright Israel trips (in addition to teaching English as a volunteer).

As for teaching the kids in Kiryat Moshe, “There was nothing more fulfilling” she said. “I learned so much and gave so much.”

She especially learned about different communities of Jews.

“I worked with students from Ethiopia and Yemen, and this has connected me to the global community of Jewish people,” she said. “I feel like I am a part of it.”

Michael Kohn
Michael Kohn

Michael Kohn is a Bay Area-based freelance reporter and has written about Israel for Lonely Planet.