Jennifer Handel


So what does a young American Jew with a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in liberal arts do after the endless battle of job hunting? Well move to Israel, of course! Now that might sound a little crazy, but that’s exactly what I did—though it was never part of my life plan.

Growing up in a New York suburb that was mostly Protestant and Catholic, I only had an inkling of a Jewish identity from Hanukkah celebrations and Passover seders. When I graduated from SUNY Cortland with a degree in Secondary Social Studies Education, I looked forward to becoming a public school teacher. But, instead, I found a declining job market for educators.

At first, I decided to stick it out and wait for the perfect job to magically appear. But when I finished my master’s degree, I stopped searching for my dream job, and settled for any teaching opportunity that would get me into a classroom full time. This is how I fell into the role as a substitute teacher, where I made a career of doing other people’s jobs.

It was during this time of my life that I heard about Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a pilot program that sends young American Jews to Israel for 10 months to work as English teachers in some of Israel’s neediest public schools. Through my first visit to Israel with Birthright, I discovered that Israel was not, in fact, the tense and scary country that I had once imagined it to be, and I was looking for a way to return.

Soon enough, I was on a plane, prepared to go to Rishon LeZion, a city that I previously knew nothing about. With five years of substitute teaching experience, I came to Israel confident in my abilities to manage a class—and then I walked into my first Israeli classroom.

Even the training we received could not have prepared me for the first moments of shock. There was so much noise and chaos, and so many kids! I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into.

But six months into my work at the Rozen Elementary School in Rishon LeZion, I’m a much more skilled teacher. I’ve also learned that even in all the craziness that exists in the Israeli classrooms, learning really does happen.

Along with my colleague, I take small groups of students out from each class and work with them on their English abilities. At first I was concerned that my lack of Hebrew knowledge would make it impossible for me to help the students, but I’ve found that while I can’t full communicate with more than a handful of teachers and students, I have been able to make a difference in my students’ education. Furthermore, my Hebrew has greatly improved. because I don’t let my mistakes hold me back from speaking Hebrew, my students feel empowered to use their English.

But this, like living in Israel itself, has been a learning process. For a person coming from New York, the city that never sleeps, I have had to acclimate to Shabbat—the day when Israel shuts down. Living with four Americans in a small apartment in a new city has also posed its own challenges.

Still, I feel like this experience has offered me more than I could ever have hoped for. Not only is it the first time I am living on my own since college, but it has given me the opportunity to put my degrees to work, learn a new language, develop relationships with people from all over the world, and discover my Jewish identity.

Most importantly, I have learned that I have the courage to veer from my plan in order to pursue a path that I know will change my life forever.

Hometown: Long Island, New York

College: SUNY Cortland

Major: Social Studies Education

City in Israel: Rishon LeZion

Fellowship Year: 2011-2012

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