When Jesse Berkowitz graduated from The College of Wooster last year, he knew two things: 1. he wanted to travel and 2. he wanted to make a difference. These two passions led him to Ma’ase Olam’s Israel Teaching Fellows – a 10-month service-learning program, that enables college graduates to help close the achievement gap in Israel’s educational system by volunteering in the country’s schools.

Halfway through the program, which began back in August, Jesse has realized both of his goals. He took some time to talk with Repair the World about his background with service, how a biology major ended up teaching English in Israel (and loving it), and the joys of singing with his students.

What was your background with volunteering before Israel Teaching Fellows?
I first got involved in high school with the community service club, and became president of the club my last two years. We would volunteering with different local organizations – helping out with Habitat for Humanity, volunteering at a local nursing home, or working with underprivileged youth. In college, I shifted my focus towards agricultural volunteering. I lived in my college’s organic farming house, where the students would all go volunteer on nearby farms. It was great because we got to get outside of the liberal arts college bubble.

How did you find the Israel Teaching Fellows program, and what compelled you to join?
I visited Israel for the first time with my family three years ago and, as cheesy as it sounds, I fell in love with the country as many people do. I loved the idea of coming back to live here after school, but wanted to find a meaningful way to do it. I found the program while I was Googling things to do in Israel. I began checking out the blogs of people who had down the program before, and getting in touch with a few of them to learn about their experience. There are so many teach English programs around the world, but this seemed like a particularly good fit.

Tell me more about the volunteering you do?
I volunteer as an English assistant in an elementary school. I serve as someone who can help the teacher by taking children out of the classroom for individual and small group instruction. Israeli classrooms tend to be overcrowded – having 40 children in one class is not uncommon. So taking some of the kids out calms things down, and allows for more individual attention. We mostly do reading and writing work, but if I have a small group, sometimes it’s nice to spend an hour just speaking with them in English. I try to get them talking about things that are relevant to their lives, or what music and television shows they like. If they are excited about talking in English, they end up trying harder to learn it, which helps them down the line.

I also teach them about one song a month. Right now I’m teaching them the words to Over the Rainbow, and I taught them a Maccabeats song around Hanukkah. They also wrote a school play and are goign to be performing that soon.

Are you involved with any extracurricular volunteering?
Almost everyone in our group has gotten involved with some kind of extracurricular community serve. Some participants are working in after school sports programs, or arts programs. I work in a community gardening group. We just started planting the garden at a community center in Rehovot. There are a bunch of gardening boxes and each one belongs to a family. It’s been great to get involved with agriculture again.

What’s been the most challenging thing about the program?
It has been challenging to adjust to Israeli school culture, which is much more laid back than American schools. Schedules aren’t necessarily adhered to, and it can be frustrating to come in with the hope of achieving everything on a list, and then things just don’t happen. But it’s been a fun challenge – I’ve learned that you have to just go with the flow.

It can also be challenging when I’m working with kids who know very little English. I’m learning Hebrew, but my Hebrew is currently very lacking – so it can be hard to communicate in those situations. At first I didn’t realize now it would work, but it somehow works itself out. It’s obviously easier to work with students who already know how to read in English, but I think it’s been important to work with both kinds of students.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of the program?
The teachers are constantly telling me how appreciative they are, so that’s nice to hear. The kids have also taken to me really well. It’s nice to walk into school and have a bunch of kids run up and say, “Jesse, good morning!” It’s great to have become part of the school’s community, and to really feel at home. It’s not always easy to see the progress the kids are making, but sometimes you see how well someone is reading, and you think about where they were at a few months back, and that reminds me of why I’m doing this.