“Some would say that is sounds like a post-apocalyptic vision, but for Shaina Lidd and Rachelle Lansky, choosing to teach English to children in the Bedouin sector was a natural choice. These young women came to Israel and settled in the Negev and are currently giving the children of the Al-Huda school a new love of the English language. “I wanted to find my own way to bring our two peoples together”, says Shaina Lidd. Her friend, Rachelle Lansky adds, “For me, Judaism is social justice.”
Two young Jewish women walk into the classroom at an elementary school in Rahat and start teaching English in strong American accents. This might sound like the start of a joke, but the facts are anything but. On the whiteboard in one of the classrooms on a mid-week morning, we found Arabic texts – remnants of an earlier lesson. Alongside the Arabic we saw English writing, written by the young English teachers, Shaina Lidd and Rachelle Lansky, both ‘nice Jewish girls’ who for the past few months have been teaching English to the Bedouin students of the Al-Huda School in Rahat.
The two aren’t teachers – they are doing their work on a purely voluntary basis with a lot of good will, dedication and love for their young students which is reciprocated in turn.
You have to see how fascinated the school children are by their young teachers, how they hug them at recess, how they laugh and joke with them in English (with a sprinkling of Arabic and Hebrew), to understand the deep connection that has formed between them. Shaina and Rachelle teach English grammar and read stories and other texts with them, exclusively in English. During their lessons you won’t hear a word of either Arabic or Hebrew – and when it comes to 10-11 year olds that’s not something regularly experienced in this area of the Negev. We decided that we would sit in a lesson to find out more about how it works.
Studying in the Secular Yeshiva
Shaina Lidd (21), was born and raised in Virginia, USA. She didn’t learn education or teaching in college – she studied International Relations and Religious Studies. She heard about BINA from one of her friends and came to Israel in September 2015 and moved immediately to Beer Sheva, to BINA’s Secular Yeshiva. The program at the Yeshiva combines learning with social action in the surrounding community. Shaina chose volunteering as an English teacher for Bedouin children in Rahat. Shaina is the middle child in a family of three children – she has a brother two years older than her and a sister two years younger. She grew up in a secular household, which, over the years, evolved to become Reform.
What brings an young Jewish woman to Israel and what made you specifically chose to work with Bedouin children?
“When I finished my first degree at university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I wanted to continue in academia and complete further degrees, but I wanted to take some time out first to explore and see what the world has to offer”
Connection to the city
Whilst deliberating about what to do next, Shaina spoke to a friend who suggested a trip to Israel. For Shaina, this wouldn’t be her first visit to Israel, she had been here before. She previously spent some time in Beer Sheva and according to her, she swore then and there that she’d never set foot in the town again. “When I was in Beer Sheva a few years ago”, she says with a smile, “and I saw the town, I said to myself that there was no way I would ever live here. Then fate waved her magic wand. When I came back here seven months ago, it all looked completely different. I feel a lot more connected to the city now – I really love Beer Sheva!”
What made you decide to teach English to Bedouin kids?
I wanted to work to do something connected to Arab-Jewish co-existence. In university I was very involved in a program that promotes co-existence between our two peoples and I wanted to continue with that.” To realize her dream, Shana joined the Israel Teaching Fellows Program for post-college students that is a joint initiative between the Jewish Agency’s MASA program (encouraging young American Jews to come to Israel for a year of experiencing the country and voluntary work), BINA and A New Dawn in the Negev, a Bedouin-Jewish organization working to develop and bring educational opportunities to Rahat. The aim of the Israel Teaching Fellows program is to acquaint the participants with Israeli society in a truly immersive way. “The program really spoke to me,” explains Shaina “which is why for me it was a natural choice to come to Rahat. It’s exactly what I was looking for – I wanted to find my own way to bring the two sides closer together.”
Before you came here to teach English to these children, did you know anything about Bedouin youth? Did you know what to expect when you arrived?
“I didn’t know much at all. I didn’t know anything about the Bedouin. I knew they were Muslim and that they settled in the Negev area about twenty years ago, but not more than that.”
In love with the desert
Rachelle Lansky (27), is a young Jewish woman who grew up in Colorado, USA. She describes herself as a fan of the desert and open spaces so when she came to Rahat in the Negev, the environment felt totally natural to her. Before coming to Israel, she took part in an agricultural educational program in Baltimore that made her decide to come to Israel. In Baltimore, she admits, she felt a desire to develop a new connection to Judaism and to incorporate into that a commitment to the Environment and Environmental sustainability. Rachelle is an only child, her parents separated when she was three years old. It wasn’t a coincidence that she decided to come to Israel. “I was at a crossroads in my life”, she says, “I was looking for a spiritual place where I would be able to ‘find’ myself. As a Jew, Israel is my spiritual homeland and I came to the conclusion that this was the best place for me to go through the process I was experiencing.” This Rachelle’s second visit to Israel. Her first trip was ten years ago. “Back then I wanted to learn about different parts of Israeli society,” she recalls, “but it wasn’t anything like this – it’s a complete immersion and integration into the community. When I was in the US, I took part in a program that hosted young people from all over the Middle East: Israelis, Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians. I became interested in the complexity of the relationships between the people of the region. It felt natural to me to work in the heart of the Bedouin community because although it’s part of Israeli society the relationship between the Bedouin and wider society is complicated. It challenges me.”
Did you know anything about the Bedouin before you came here?
“I didn’t know a great deal about the Bedouin. I knew they were travellers and that they were very hospitable. I was interested in the community and I wanted to learn about their history and lifestyle.”
Understanding each other
There’s no doubt that what Shaina and Rachelle have chosen to do is unusual. A few years ago, the young Jewish adults coming to Israel for short periods would be mainly from wealthy diaspora families and could be found spending time picking oranges on a kibbutz, riding camels and visiting holy sites. Today things are very different. It’s not the fact that they are choosing to teach in a school where all the pupils are Arabic speaking Bedouin that Shaina and Rachelle highlight when you talk to them, but the connections they have formed here. They both admit that although during lesson time, English is the only language used in the classroom, at recess it’s another story altogether. The schoolyard is filled with a mix of Arabic, Hebrew and now English. It’s a sea of languages, “but everyone understands each other,” says Shaina with a smile. Just how connected the pupils are to their teachers is borne out during the course of our interview when a few of the children gather in the corner of the classroom, listening with deep concentration to what they have to say. As soon as the recess bell rings, they pounce on Shaina and Rachelle and hug them. Not the usual scene you expect to encounter between pupils and their teachers. “I love Shaina,” says Nidah Alhouzale, one of the girls her eyes sparkling, “she’s really good. We play with her and enjoy our English lessons.” Zair Abu Altaif, another pupil, doesn’t hide his feelings, “I love playing with my teacher. She loves me and I feel great with her.” When we go out into the schoolyard with Shaina and Rachelle, a trail of students follow them. Everyone wants to be near them. “It’s really fun for us with them,” they tell us, “they aren’t just teachers, they are our good friends too.” The link between these two young Jewish women and the Bedouin children is astonishing. “In the beginning,” says Shaina, “I didn’t think it would work. We are so different from the students in so many ways. We come from different culture, our mentality is different, our paths are different. For example, I come from an area of forests, with loads of water, everything is green. When you come here, to the middle of the desert, everything is bare – in the beginning I couldn’t see how it would all come together.
And in the end it did all come together?
“I realized that the children’s English was improving, and my Hebrew was getting better as well. I understood that relationships aren’t about where we come from, but about who we are.”
How do you overcome the language barrier?
“Of course, in the beginning, when I spoke English and they spoke Arabic, we didn’t understand each other. When you want to communicate with people and language is difficult, then you have to find the simplest ways to express things, like ‘I like you’. The simple things proved to us that people are naturally inclined to connect with each other. We knew we are all people that want to be happy, to smile, to love. That’s the thing that links us.”
An emotional connection
Rachelle confirms every word that Shaina says, “When there are such great language difficulties,” she emphasizes, “you might think there would be no connection, but with us it’s different. There is a great connection between us and the Bedouin children. We’ve been able to form deep emotional ties to them all, and I don’t even want to think about the end of the school year, when we’ll have to leave.
Have you learnt any Arabic?
“I’ve learnt a little. Not enough to hold a conversation, but I know basic words like ‘Ya’alla’, we understand more than we can speak.”
Shaina and Rochelle travel to the school four times a week, teaching English to third through sixth grade pupils from 8am till 2pm. “There’s no doubt”, Rachelle says, “that the Bedouin students know English much better than we know Arabic. It’s amazing to see how well the students imitate me and my accent. It’s very important that they only hear and speak English in the classroom. Outside the lessons, it’s another matter and we use all languages.”
Your extraordinary volunteer work is part of the framework of your studies at the BINA Secular Yeshiva that focuses on Jewish identity. How does that align with the work you do in the Bedouin community?
“In my opinion, the Judaism I know and believe in connects diverse peoples of all backgrounds, it brings different cultures together, enabling us to connect with the people around us. For me that is the true meaning Judaism.”
“For me,” adds Shaina, “Judaism means social justice. That means helping the people around me when they need it. The pupils in the school need my help with their English and the fact that they belong to another religion is irrelevant. For me this is one hundred percent the way I practice my Judaism.
The day after
In a few months’ time, the program that Shaina and Rochelle are participating in will come to an end and they will have to say goodbye to their young students. Although they don’t want to think about the day they will leave the school for good, they are not hiding their future plans – yes, they have already planned for the day after. Shaina plans to study Education as well as Peace and Conflict Resolution. This type of study program in English is available at Haifa University and she plans to relocate next year to the Carmel. “I’m staying in Israel and I’m moving to Haifa, but after I finish my studies, I’d love to come back here, to the Negev and to Beer Sheva, and work in the Bedouin community but not in an educational capacity, I’m interested in policy making around the existence of the Beduin in the Negev.”
Rachelle has already expressed her love of the Negev and the desert. She’s planning to study herbal medicine and to focus on strengthening her spirituality. She dreams of learning Kabalah. “I’m very connected to the landscape here, I can see myself living here. I imagine a kind of agriculture lifestyle, like a kibbutz or a moshav here in the Negev. It’s magical.”
The vision becomes reality
The principal of the Al Huda School in Rahat, Jamal Al-Houzail, is full of praise for the work that Shaina and Rachelle have been doing. This framework for teaching English is an experimental project that is being piloted in five schools in Rahat. “This is a welcome and important initiative,” notes Al-Houzail, “it’s an innovative project that should ideally be expanded into more schools. Shaina and Rachelle teach the children English at mother tongue level. In the lessons they speak only English and I’m already receiving reports from parents that their children are speaking English at home with American accents. It gives us so much. We are just at the beginning of the pilot and we have no problem bringing other culture here.”
And the fact that two young Jewish women have come here from America to teach English to Bedouin children? Does it sound like a post-apocalyptic vision?
“It’s a vision that has become reality. The two women are deeply connected to us. It takes brave people to believe in the idea – without courage it wouldn’t happen.”
Do you think it’s also contributing to improving Arab-Jewish co-existence?
“I pray that over the next few years, more Jewish educators will enter our education system. It really does contribute to co-existence which is something many talk about but few do anything to actually change.”
Shaina and Rochelle are studying at the BINA Secular Yeshiva in Beer Sheva, headed by Dr. Shimon Vaknin. Their studies and volunteer work is part of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture’s International programing, in partnership with A New Dawn in the Negev, a Bedouin-Jewish organization established to promote educational opportunities for Bedouin communities in Rahat and the surrounding region.
Established in 1996, BINA provides opportunities to Israelis and international Jews of diverse backgrounds to engage in pluralistic approaches to Jewish learning, Jewish identity, and social action, seeking to strengthen Israel as an inclusive, democratic and unified society.
“Our organization,” BINA’s Executive Director, Eran Baruch tells Yedioth HaNegev, “centers around social Judaism, the study of Torah, Jewish identity and social action. Shaina and Rachelle’s work in Rahat is part of our wider perception that we need to support this sector of Israeli society. The relationships built between these two Jewish women and the Bedouin children is a direct realization of the verse in the Torah that talks about how to treat the ‘stranger in your midst’. It’s part of our ideology. We plan to expand the project and are currently recruiting new volunteers who will teach I schools in Rahat next year. This is cutting edge Zionism that is connected to the Negev region and its needs. It’s pioneering in all senses of the word.