By Shoshana Hebshi, j. correspondent
Matt Barsalou had to admit it. He was hooked on Israel.
During a Birthright Israel trip in 2013, just after he had graduated from college, Barsalou fell madly in love with Israel — so much so that a year later he found himself on an airplane back to the country.
Barsalou joined the Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program and taught English to elementary school kids in Petah Tikva during the 2014-15 school year.
“I’ve always had an interest in working with kids, and teaching has always been a passion of mine. And doing so in Israel was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Barsalou, a 26-year-old native of Connecticut now living in Oakland.
Since it began in 2011, the MITF program, funded by Israel’s Ministry of Education, has sent 665 fellows to communities in Israel to teach English to schoolchildren. The fellows are native English speakers from around the world.
During the 10-month program, fellows receive a small monthly stipend, live in an apartment with other fellows, and get opportunities to travel and participate in cultural activities.
San Francisco resident Danielle Bezalel, 23, discovered the fellowship while searching online for a way to spend a year in Israel after graduating from U.C. Berkeley. The Masa program proved to be just what she was looking for: an opportunity to volunteer and learn Hebrew while also connecting with her grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins (her father is from Israel).
But teaching English at an elementary school in Rishon LeTzion wasn’t easy, Bezalel said. Many of her students had attention or behavioral issues, forcing her to learn to adapt and and become more easygoing.
The experience helped lead her to her current job, working for the nonprofit Real Options for City Kids in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley. Bezalel said she sees a big parallel between the Israeli youth she taught and those she works with now at ROCK, which provides academic and social support for at-risk youth.
“It all comes down to trauma,” she said. “[In Israel] it’s the trauma of the war, of always being on the defensive. For my students [in Visitacion Valley], it’s the trauma of community violence, of having one parent in the house, one parent in jail.”
Like Bezalel, Barsalou also values his experience as a Masa fellow. He also credits it for helping him land his current job at Berkeley Hillel.
“It was absolutely life-changing,” he said. “Being a Masa participant opened so many doors and new experiences for me.”
At Hillel, Barsalou’s job is to provide information about Birthright Israel trips, and to open up students’ eyes to Birthright opportunities. And though he does credit his own Birthright trip with changing his life, he said it was only through Masa that “I was really able to dig in and experience [Israel] and immerse myself.”
Of course, there are challenges, too, such as learning Hebrew.
Bezalel said not knowing Hebrew made it difficult to communicate with many people, including her grandmother. “As time went on we were able to have basic but real conversations,” she said, “which was a real important part of why I was there.”
MITF provides Hebrew instruction twice a week for its fellows, many of whom speak no Hebrew when they arrive in Israel, according to Allison Green, Masa’s marketing and communications manager. To help give future fellows a jump start, Masa is compiling information on online Hebrew courses and other pertinent resources, Green said.
Barsalou said he has continued working on his Hebrew since returning to the United States. But mostly, he reflects on his time in Israel.
After living and working in Israel for 10 months, “you’ll come back with a changed perspective,” he said.
Originally published in jWeekly